Public defenders moved closer to a deal with the Appalachian Circuit this month. In May, attorney James Johnson petitioned Pickens County for fair pay for attorneys handling indigent juvenile cases, citing the current salary for each attorney of $20,000 violated a previous contract and certain state standards.
Several years ago, the state Supreme Court set guidelines of a minimum to pay indigent defense attorneys. According to these guidelines, the minimum rate is $45 an hour for out-of-court work and $60 an hour for in-court work.
“If you do the math,”
“we’re being paid eight hours a week.”
Previously counties would appoint an attorney and pay him an hourly rate, but were still having a hard time finding attorneys to take cases. Pickens then moved to a panel of attorneys who would rotate assignments. Four years ago, Johnson said, the county moved to a contract system. He said the contract was acceptable at first, but then several years ago the rate was cut and a year later was cut again. Following the second rate cut, he said his group of defenders were considering filing suit against the county, but reconsidered, deciding to try to work out a deal.
During the Pickens County Commissioners Meeting last week, county attorney Phillip Landrum presented a plan to remedy the situation. Landrum said little had changed since the last meeting, explaining that the plan increases the attorney’s salary from $20,000 to $45,000 plus benefits and each county in the circuit, including Fannin and Gilmer, will also provide one attorney each to try these cases. Also, the plan includes an additional attorney to handle indigent cases, which will be paid by the state. According to Landrum, the additional attorney will act a as a “floater,” assisting the other three attorneys when needed and will likely work out of the Fannin Courthouse. The attorneys will also answer to a three panel board. During the meeting, Commission Chair Robert Jones said he’d like to see a periodic report, to see if the county’s “getting its money worth.”
The number of attorneys, though, could be an issue.
At the June workshop earlier in the month, Johnson expressed concern about the case load.
“I don’t see how three attorneys are going to handle 900 hundred potential cases circuit-wide,”
he said. Johnson explained the law right now requires each party in a single case to have an attorney. If a case involves a father, mother and children, three attorneys are required by law to try the case. Currently, Pickens County has between 100 and 110 indigent juvenile cases, he claimed, which Johnson said equals 300 attorneys. Johnson offered the 900 number on the basis that the two other counties have a similar number of these cases.
“The other problem,”
“is that the juvenile code has changed.”
Taking effect January first, the new code states each child must have an attorney. Johnson said he recently tried a case involving four children and two parents. Under the new code, he asserted that this would require six attorneys.
Chairman Jones, though, is skeptical about the 900 estimate. In a conversation with FYN this week, Jones said he didn’t believe the number of pending cases was that high, saying some of the cases may have been closed and many of them are old.
Doubtless, the number of juvenile indigent cases is vague. FYN contacted three counties to verify Johnson’s estimate. Pickens County’s Clerk of Court Gail Brown was unavailable to answer our inquiry. Gilmer County’s Clerk of Court Glenda Sue Johnson said she wouldn’t have that information, but would try to process the request, saying she doesn’t have any specific report she could run to identify those cases. Also, according to Fannin County Clerk of Courts Dana Chastain, the county would not be able to provide any information regarding DEFACS cases without a court order.
Pickens County unanimously voted to execute the plan. Gilmer and Fannin counties are still required to approve the plan and are expected to vote on the deal soon.
“It’s a difficult problem, but I think we got a good solution to it,”
“We’ll see how it goes and if six months goes by and we have a better solution, we can look at that.”