Jefferson County lawyers discuss indigent defense

STEUBENVILLE – Reducing the costs of providing attorneys for indigent criminal defendants was the focus of a meeting of the Jefferson County Bar Association and the county commissioners on Thursday at the courthouse.

The county faced bills totaling $533,717 for the attorney fees in 2013 and received reimbursement from the state totaling $202,195. The county’s bill was $331,522, the highest amount in eight years. The state currently reimburses 40 percent of the cost.

Twenty years ago the county had a bill of $103,569 for lawyers for indigent defendants.

Attorney Steve Lamatrice said the costs vary by year. He said there were more than 800 criminal defendants charged with a felony in the county courts, municipal court and common pleas court, plus an additional 1,500 people charged with misdemeanors in the lower court system. He said only about 10 percent of the defendants retain their own attorney.

Commissioners had thrown out the idea of a public defender’s office, but Lamatrice said there would have to be at least five lawyers, plus support staff and expenses needed to handle the volume.

County Commissioner David Maple said the costs of the indigent defendant fees keeps rising. He said the commissioners have a job to keep the costs down and noted any fighting by the bar association against a public defender’s office may be premature.

Lamatrice said the courts may be able to do more screening to see if a person is indigent.

The common pleas court judges always place the attorney fees on the court costs of the defendant. Those defendants placed on probation must pay the fees before leaving probation status.

Attorney Eric Reszke said a person can be kept on probation for up to five years.

“You have their interest when they are on probation,” he said about recouping the costs.

Lamatrice said the increasing costs of providing an attorney may be a societal problem today.

“There is a huge heroin problem and that leads to thefts and burglaries,” he said.

County Commissioner Tom Gentile asked if there are other ways to cut court expenses, such as video arraignments.

“Crime is a huge chunk of our budget,” he said, adding it accounts for half of the county’s general fund.

Maple said revenue from the courts in the form of fines is decreasing.

Attorney Jeff Bruzzese of the county prosecutor’s office said defense attorneys do a good job at being efficient and keeping costs down.

“You don’t see a lot of wasteful motions,” he said.

Lawyers can charge $40 per hour for defending an indigent criminal defendant.

“Those are 1975 rates,” said attorney Adrian Hershey. “That is what I was charging when I got out of law school.”

The bar association agreed to form a committee to study ways to reduce the costs for indigent defendants and reduce the costs of operating the courts.