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State's way of paying public defenders debated

September 24, 2014

The state pays the salaries of its judges and prosecutors, but public defenders are paid by counties that are only partially reimbursed for their costs — an approach that some including the executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council want to see changed.

Larry Landis said it's time to pay public defenders, who represent people who can't afford attorneys, the same way as prosecutors because the current pay system is unfair. The idea surfaced at a legislative committee meeting Monday.

"They've abdicated their state responsibility," Landis said. "You're talking about a constitutionally mandated service where people's liberties are on the line."

In Indiana, counties determine how public defenders are paid. Some public defenders work under contract, while others are appointed by judges on a case-by-case basis. There is no statewide system.

Regardless of how they handle paying for indigent defense, the counties that apply get 40 percent of the money they spend on public defenders back from the state. In the last budget, the state set aside $14.8 million to cover public defender costs, and Landis said only 48 counties have set up the local commissions required to receive any of the money.

"If money is tight, which it is, spending money on poor people who are accused of crimes is not going to be a high priority for county funding," Landis said.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Tim Brown said Tuesday he's open to the idea of the state paying public defenders if it can gain broad government support.

But Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke Kenley said the state simply doesn't have the money to do it, and he's satisfied with the current arrangement.

"We do pay a share of that now and the counties pay a share of that," Kenley said. "This way they have an incentive to keep the cost under control."

The lack of state salaries is felt on both sides of the courtroom. Other than the elected prosecutor and his chief deputy, the other county prosecutors also are paid by their counties. Low pay leads to high turnover and a lack of experienced attorneys on both sides, said Landis and the executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, David Powell.

"Certainly the pay's too low," Powell said. "You ought to be able to make a career of that and pay your bills and raise your family."

Aaron Negangard, prosecutor of Dearborn and Ohio counties in southeastern Indiana, doesn't believe it's fair for public defenders to get the same pay as prosecutors. He said they don't carry the caseloads that prosecutors do and that the burden of proof is on the state, not the defense.

"I'm satisfied with the system the way it is," said Negangard, who heads the prosecuting attorneys' lobbying group. "I think the state reimbursement program works well. It keeps the control in the county."

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