The Indiana General Assembly has taken the first step toward allowing Indiana counties to create regional public defenders’ offices, a change that has been championed as a means of reducing public defender caseloads and eliminating the appearance of judicial impropriety when appointing indigent defense.
The Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee on Tuesday unanimously endorsed Senate Bill 488, which would allow the Indiana Public Defender Commission to develop guidelines and requirements for multicounty public defenders’ offices. Authored by Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, SB 488 would also allow county executives to adopt ordinances allowing for interlocal agreements signed for the purpose of creating the multicounty offices.
The bill further provides that multicounty offices must be governed by a joint board, appointed pursuant to Indiana Code section 36-1-7-3(a)(5)(b). Board members must have “demonstrated an interest in high quality legal representation for indigent persons,” but cannot be a judge or an attorney who provides indigent defense in the counties included in the interlocal agreement, among other restrictions.
The board would be tasked with establishing the multicounty public defender’s office and appointing a multicounty public defender who would serve at least a four-year term. The joint board would also have to present an annual operating budget to the fiscal body of each county involved in the agreement.
Representatives from both the Public Defender Commissioner and the Indiana Public Defender Council spoke in favor of SB 488, with Michael Moore of the council telling committee members that the bill would be an effective means of resolving capacity issues in public defenders’ offices. Moore noted regional cooperation is a successful resource-sharing tool among schools and fire departments.
A 2018 report from the Indiana Task Force on Public Defense recommended the creation of regional public defense officers as a cost-sharing mechanism that could help smaller counties provide higher quality indigent defense services. The idea, according to task force members, would be to enable small counties to come into compliance with the commission’s caseload standards, thus allowing those counties to receive commission reimbursement.
According to the bill, the county auditor from just one of the counties involved in an interlocal agreement would be tasked with receiving, disbursing and accounting for all money distributed to the multicounty public defender’s office. The regional offices would be entitled to the same commission reimbursement as a single-county office: 40 percent for noncapital cases, except misdemeanors, and 50 percent for capital cases, as long as commission standards are met.
SB 488 would also make changes to the statute governing single-county public defender boards. Under the legislation, judges would only be allowed to appoint one member of the three-member boards, down from the two members they currently appoint. The remaining two members would be appointed by the county executive and the Public Defender Commission.
Young, addressing committee members Tuesday morning, said part of the purpose behind the bill is to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interests in the appointment of public defenders. He noted that in some counties, public defenders are required to appear before the judges who appoint them to represent indigent clients. In those cases, attorneys might be hesitant to oppose what is perceived to be a bad judicial ruling or take the judge up on appeal.
Though Young said he does not think judges take advantage of those situations, he also said “the appearance seems to be off.”
“For the purposes of fairness, that’s not the right way to go about it,” he said.
Discussion about SB 488 was very limited, and the bill passed with no opposition. It now advances to the full Senate.