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County will explore adding public defender

STEUBENVILLE — The Jefferson County commissioners on Thursday agreed to create a commission to study whether the county should create to a public defender’s office.

Attorney Steve Stickles told the commissioners there are now only four attorneys in the county who take felony court appointments for indigent defendants.

A proposal made several years ago to create a public defender’s office was never acted on. Stickles, who is one of the attorneys taking indigent client cases, said he was a vocal opponent at the time. But his opinions have changed because there are so few attorneys willing to take on court-appointed cases. He said that puts the county in danger because federal and state governments require attorneys to be appointed when a person can’t afford legal representation.

“More and more defendants can’t afford representation,” he said.

Stickles said there are only two attorneys certified to handle serious felony cases.

The county has been paying around $430,000 a year during the last 10 years for attorneys in indigent cases in the county courts and municipal and common pleas courts. The county had been receiving about 42 percent reimbursement from the state for that cost. The state has increased the amount to 80 percent, with the rate expected to increase to 90 percent this year.

Stickles believes a public defender’s office would cost about $1 million a year. The budget for the prosecutor’s office is $1.2 million a year.

He said the county could get back $800,000 or more, based on current state reimbursement rates. Stickles said paying about $200,000 a year for a public defender’s office would be cheaper than the amount of money now being spent.

Commissioner David Maple said the county needs to have a discussion about creating a public defender’s office. But he believes the cost would be closer to $500,000.

Stickles said the attorneys doing the work are being paid a rate lower than the state average.

He said there aren’t enough young attorneys willing to do the work. He said there was a time when older attorneys would mentor the newer attorneys, but that is no longer happening. He added that attorneys doing indigent defense work also maintain a full-time private practice

The county risks not getting the state reimbursement if it can’t provide qualified attorneys, Stickles explained.

Commissioner Thomas Graham suggested forming a commission made up of attorneys and judges to study the issue. He said the commission could come back to the commissioners with a recommendation.

“If it can better serve Jefferson County, then we need to look at it,” Maple said.

Maple said there are two things outside the control of the commissioners — the number of attorneys and the state reimbursement amount.

Commissioners received the annual animal shelter report and the December report.

For December, the shelter recorded 86 dogs brought in and 53 dogs were adopted. One dog was euthanized for aggression. Thirty stray dogs were brought into the shelter, with more than one-half coming from Steubenville. There were four county humane society cases.

The annual report showed 994 dogs were brought to the shelter, with 445 being strays. The report states 599 dogs were adopted. 214 dogs were reclaimed, 156 were sent to foster care and 10 went to rescue shelters.

Chad Coil, county dog warden, said 19 dogs were euthanized last year, which represents slightly less than 2 percent of the dogs brought into the shelter. Three dogs died of natural causes. There were 43 humane society cases.

Commissioners approved a proclamation recognizing Fred McGee Sr., the current veteran of the year as named by the Jefferson County Veterans Service Commission.

McGee, who died on Jan. 3, was a decorated Korean War veteran. Officials, organizations and individuals have been trying to get the Medal of Honor bestowed upon him for his actions during a brutal battle on June 16, 1952, on Hill 528 in Tang-Wan-Ni. For his efforts, McGee received the Silver Star. Graham said some believe McGee hasn’t received the Medal of Honor because he was African-American.

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