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Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Indiana Courts - "Lawsuit: Allen county's public defender system 'set up to fail poor people'"

Last October the ILB has three posts headed "Class Action Lawsuit to be Filed Over Inadequate Johnson County Public Defense System."

Today Kristine Guerra of the Indianapolis Star reports on a similar federal lawsuit filed against Allen County. A few quotes from today's story:

This lawsuit comes only a few months after a similar one was filed in Johnson County. A group of inmates facing felony charges there say they've received little to no assistance from their court-appointed attorneys, according to court records. Some accuse the Johnson County public defenders of forcing them to accept plea deals.

Unlike the Johnson County case, no individual attorneys were named as defendants in the Allen County lawsuit.

The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, was filed on Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana against Allen County and governing bodies in charge of setting aside tax dollars and approving staffing levels for the public defender's office. The Allen County Council, Allen County Board of Commissioners and Allen County Public Defender Board are named as defendants. * * *

Allen County, Indiana's third-most-populous county, contracts private attorneys to serve as full-time and part-time public defenders. Hammond, the chief public defender, also is contracted by the county and maintains a private practice in Fort Wayne.

Part-time public defenders earn between $8,000 and $24,000 annually, regardless of how many cases they handle or how much time they devote to each case.

Only three, sometimes four, part-time public defenders handle more than 1,500 misdemeanor cases every year, court records show. One part-time public defender handles double, triple and sometimes even quadruple the maximum number of cases allowed by state standards, court records say. This number does not include cases from their private practices.

In 2014, for instance, a public defender's misdemeanor caseload ranged from 343 to 560 cases, according to court records. The maximum should be 150 cases a year for one part-time public defender.

The situation is different in Marion County, which has a more adequately staffed public defender agency. But because of the excessive number of caseloads in Allen County, situations like Wilson's have become common, Frank said.

Indigent defendants often aren't adequately informed of their legal rights, the lawsuit says. Attorneys rarely invest more than an hour on a case, and they rarely meet with their clients outside of court, according to the 18-page complaint.

Such scenarios violate the sixth and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution, the complaint says.

"If you or someone in your family was charged with a crime, whether or not you think they actually did it, under our system of justice, that person is at least entitled to a fair shot," Frank said.

The lawsuit also alleges that Allen County officials have long been aware of the problem of excessive caseloads, but "have taken little or no action to properly fund, regulate, or manage public defense in Allen County."

"I'm not here to fault the attorneys or even the chief public defender," Frank said. "The problem is that the system is broken, that it's set up to fail poor people charged with crimes."

Posted by Marcia Oddi on January 6, 2016 09:25 AM
Posted to Indiana Courts