Public Defender Commission seeks funds for misdemeanors, appellate office

Guided by a task force report that calls for major reforms to Indiana’s indigent defense system, the Indiana Public Defender Commission is seeking additional funds in the state’s next biennial budget to improve defense services for indigent clients.

The commission presented its budget requests for fiscal years 2020 and 2021 to the Indiana House Ways and means Committee on Wednesday. Highlights from the proposed budget include a $4.47 million per fiscal year base budget increase, $5.7 million per fiscal year allocated for misdemeanor reimbursement and $4.9 million per fiscal year for the creation of a state appellate office to assist defenders.

“A person has a right to an appointed attorney if they cannot afford one when the state seeks to take their liberty or their children,” Larry Landis, commission vice-chair and former executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council, said in a Wednesday statement. “This budget request protects these precious rights.”

Gov. Eric Holcomb’s proposed budget would freeze public defender funding at current levels.

The commission’s budget request draws heavily on a 2018 report from the Task Force on Public Defense, a 13-member group tasked with studying Indiana’s indigent defense system and recommending improvements. The task force was created after the Sixth Amendment Center issued a report in 2016 finding several shortcomings in Indiana’s public defender services.

The task force likewise identified several areas of necessary improvement, noting many counties have public defenders who are overworked because of limited resources — a situation that could hurt the quality of representation indigent clients receive. Though Indiana operates under a county-based public defender system, the commission said the state and federal constitutions place a “clear responsibility” on states to provide lawyers who can provide constitutionally adequate indigent defense services.

“The Task Force on Public Defense … spent a year evaluating our system,” commission chair Mark Rutherford said in a statement. “The Commission’s request represents the most critical, urgent priorities that need the immediate attention of the legislature.”

According to the commission’s budget presentation, the $4.47 million base budget increase is necessary to enable to commission to meet its reimbursement obligations. Counties that comply with commission standards can receive 40 percent reimbursement for all non-capital cases, except misdemeanors, while capital cases receive 50 percent reimbursement.

If the commission fails to meet those obligations, public defenders have said that counties will have little incentive to comply with commission standards, which could lead to higher caseloads and, thus, poorer defense work. Without the budget increase, the commission told the Ways and Means Committee proration will occur.

Also related to reimbursement, the commission is following up on a task force recommendation of also offering reimbursement for misdemeanor cases, seeking $5.7 million per fiscal year for that purpose. According to the budget presentation, 65 percent of all adult criminal filings are misdemeanors that can carry serious collateral consequences, which could lead to loss of employment or other serious life-altering events.

Finally, the $4.9 million per year for a centralized appellate office would mirror a practice found in other states and in Marion County. The commission’s request is for the creation of a statewide office, which appellate attorneys say could help counties share resources and expertise, thus providing better defense services for defendants in smaller counties with limited resources.

Funding these initiatives, the commission said, can help curb issues such as jail overcrowding and recidivism. The commission also noted the number of children in need of services cases has skyrocketed, creating a greater need for indigent defense services for parents involved in CHINS proceedings.

“We know that high quality public defense services can impact CHINS cases,” commission senior staff attorney Derrick Mason said in a statement. “Statistics show that kids are in placement for shorter times in Commission Counties.”

Outside of the budget realm, the commission is pursuing reform initiatives through other legislation. One such initiative is the creation of multi-county public defenders’ offices, which would allow counties to share indigent defense resources in their regions. Senate Bill 488, allowing the creation of regional offices, unanimously passed the Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee on Tuesday.

Also, the commission has identified changing the composition of county public defender boards as priority for this year. SB 488 addresses that issue by allowing judges to appoint only one member to their three-member local boards.

The current Indiana state budget allocates a total of $25.75 million per year to the commission, drawing on money from the general fund and other dedicated funds. Holcomb’s proposed budget for FYs 2020 and 2021 would allocate $18.35 per fiscal year to the commission, plus additional appropriations of $7.4 million per year authorized under Indiana Code section 33-37-7-9(c) for reimbursements. The governor’s budget notes that $1 million per year is set aside for the defense of the parents of CHINS.

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