Public defenders from across the state came to the Indiana Statehouse Thursday to share their concerns about what they see as crisis in the state’s judiciary – the increasing difficulty their offices face to comply with caseload suggestions as more and more filings hit their desks.
The public defenders, who spoke at the second meeting of the Interim Study Committee on Courts and the Judiciary, specifically focused their testimony on misdemeanor, children in need of services and termination of parental rights cases. CHINS cases have skyrocketed in recent years, but public defender agencies have struggled to find funds to increase staffing levels accordingly.
Further, the Indiana Public Defender Commission does not provide reimbursement for misdemeanor cases, which has also led to serious issues concerning excessive caseloads, Larry Landis, executive director of the Public Defender Council, told the committee. Some counties, such as Allen, have faced federal litigation as a result of caseload issues, Landis said.
Similarly, staffing in the Marion County Public Defender Agency’s CHINS department has doubled since 2013, while the CHINS caseload has increased by 104 percent, Marion County Chief Public Defender Robert Hill told the committee. The TPR caseload has likewise increased by 139 percent, he said.
As a member of the Public Defender Commission, Hill’s office must maintain the caseload maximum standards laid out by the commission, a charge that has stretched the offices finances as it tries to hire enough attorneys to keep caseloads at acceptable levels. On a similar note, Larry Hesson, a Hendricks County attorney who offered testimony on behalf of the Association of Indiana Counties, said Hendricks County recently joined the commission and will likely have to spend more money to maintain compliance with caseload guidelines.
Under current law, the Public Defender Commission is able to reimburse the 59 participating counties 40 percent for indigent defense services, but from 2001 to 2009, the commission was unable to reimburse the full requested amount from the counties. That resulted in prorating reimbursements, leading to a loss of as much as $2.7 million owed, according to data Landis provided to the committee. From 2003 to 2004, the commission was only able to reimbursement 25.1 percent of the total requests — the lowest reimbursement rate in the data Landis provided — leading to a loss of $1.4 million.
As a result of the prorating, participating counties began to view the commission’s requirements as unfunded mandates and, thus, left the commission based on their belief that the state was an unreliable funding partner. To remedy that issue, Landis set forth a proposal that would add language to existing law to allow the State Budget Agency to authorize augmentation of the Public Defense Fund. If there was authorization to supplement the fund through augmentation and counties did not have to supplement reimbursement, then more counties would likely join the commission’s reimbursement program and maintain the applicable caseload requirements, he said.
Landis further noted that when the state took over funding for the Department of Child Services, it left the burden of providing indigent defense services of parents whose children are alleged to be CHINS with the counties, yet did not provide adiditonal county funding. He also pointed to commission data that shows counties are missing out on roughly $1.9 million each quarter in reimbursement funds for misdemeanor cases, or a total of $8 million annually.
However, about $9 million in non-reverting funds have accumulated in the Public Defense Fund, Landis said. Thus, if the Legislature would remove statutory language that prohibits the commission from reimbursing misdemeanors and instead allow the commission to use the $9 million for that reimbursement, it could begin paying out from the non-reverting funds to cover the $8 million in non-reimbursed funds.
Those funds would then go into each county’s general fund, where the money could be allocated based on the county’s most pressing needs, Landis said. That need could be either CHINS cases or compliance with misdemeanor caseloads, whichever is more urgent.
Hill agreed the state is “woefully behind” on its funding for misdemeanors and called on the General Assembly to find a way to reimburse public defenders for handling those cases. He also called on lawmakers to increase the reimbursement rate for CHINS and TPR cases to 50 percent, while maintaining the 40 percent level for all other cases.
The committee did not take action on the public defenders’ proposals, but only heard testimony and asked a handful of questions. Its final meeting is scheduled for Oct. 5, when a final report will be adopted.