Tuesday, June 7, 2011

County might cut public defender staff

Lake County officials may sacrifice the jobs of at least 25 defense attorneys to trim more than $600,000 from the public cost of representing indigent criminal defendants.

County Councilman Dan Dernulc, R-Highland, said that is one proposal a committee of council members and County Attorney John Dull are studying under a plan to merge and reduce the support staffs of five Lake Superior Court County and Lake Juvenile Division judges.

"We don't want to curtail justice," Dernulc said, "But we are diligently working on savings of costs and a reduction of risk on our insurance plan," he said.

Dull said they want to replace 32 part-time defense attorneys, who represent juveniles and adults who cannot afford private lawyers, with seven full-time attorneys who would represent the same number of clients for less.

He said they also want to pare the number of court bailiffs by two.

Dull said he hopes the County Council takes the first step June 14 by debating a proposed ordinance to transfer control over the current 32 public defenders from the five judges who now hire them to a bipartisan body that would establish job qualifications and the number of lawyers needed.

Dull said those five courts are among the few in the country where judges hire the lawyers who must practice before them. The county's four felony court judges surrendered hiring authority over their 26 defense lawyers more than a decade ago.

The Good Government Initiative, an efficiency drive by the county's largest corporate taxpayers, first recommended moving to a full-time joint public defender staff in a 2007 study.

But consolidation stalled because of an ethical reluctance to mix employees from the county division courts, steeped in party politics, with those of the nonpartisan juvenile, felony and civil courts.

The state legislature removed that obstacle earlier this year by taking the county division judges out of partisan elections. Dull said the legislators were sold on the idea because of the potential savings.

Some of the 32 part-time lawyers are paid less than $9,000 a year, but all cost taxpayers $15,000 a year in insurance coverage.

The proposed full-time lawyers would receive a salary of $50,000 a year.

By Bill Dolan, bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328

Source: Nwitimes.com

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