Public Defender Commission seeks public input on proposals for lower caseloads, higher pay

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The Indiana Public Defender Commission is proposing new standards that would significantly cut the caseloads and increase the pay for attorneys who represent adults and juveniles accused of criminal offenses.

Currently the caseloads maximums for public defenders in Indiana are inappropriately high, especially for serious felonies, according to a 2020 workload study done for the commission. The new proposed standards would decrease the caseloads for Level 4 felonies and above, which, the commission states, will help ensure attorneys have adequate time to properly prepare and represent individuals charged with higher-level crimes.

Also, the commission is proposing an increase in the compensation of some public defenders by nearly $20,000, to an annual salary of $80,000.

“The commission’s primary statutory duty is to provide frameworks that adequately protect the constitutional rights of those subjected to state intervention,” commission Chair Mark Rutherford said in a news release announcing the new proposals. “We are judicious and data-driven in setting standards for maximum attorney caseloads and compensation, and we strongly encourage the public to offer comments on these proposals.”

Public comment on the proposals can be submitted in writing to [email protected] through Sept. 8. The changes are detailed in the new caseload standards and compensation proposal. All of the changes have a proposed effective date of Jan. 1, 2023.

The commission is charged with recommending to the Indiana Supreme Court the standards for representing indigent defendants in criminal cases.

In the Hoosier State, county governments must pay the legal expenses of indigent defendants in criminal and juvenile cases. Counties must also pay legal expenses for indigent parents and children involved in Department of Child Services cases.

The commission provides funding and oversight to counties by reimbursing a percentage of the costs if those counties each agree to abide by the standards for, among other things, the maximum caseloads and compensation. During the 2019-2020 fiscal year, 63 of Indiana’s 92 counties participated in the commission’s reimbursement program, receiving more than $29 million, according to the commission’s annual report.

Under the current maximum caseload standards, public defenders who work in an office with adequate staffing are permitted to handle up to 120 murder cases each year. The proposed maximum would reduce the murder caseload to no more than 20 within a 12-month period.

Likewise, Level 1 and 2 felonies along with Level 3 and 4 felonies would drop from a maximum of 120 cases for attorneys with adequate staff to a maximum 65 and 100, respectively. For public defenders working in specialized courts that exclusively handle Level 6 felonies — a practice limited to a handful of counties — the maximum caseload would fall from 270 to 200.

Caseloads for each case type represent the maximum a public defender can handle each year. For attorneys who work a variety of cases, their maximum of each type is reduced depending on how many cases of the other types they have worked.

The commission provided an example of how the calculation works. Under the new proposed standards, an attorney who was assigned 10 murders, which is 50% of the maximum 20 cases, and 50 Level 3 and Level 4 felonies, which is also 50% of the maximum 100 cases, would not be allowed to receive any more cases that year.

Juvenile caseload maximums would also be decreased under the proposal. Public defenders with adequate staffing would not be able to handle any more than 20 juvenile murder cases in a single year, down from the current maximum of 250.

In addition, public defenders could represent no more than 65 juvenile waiver cases and no more than 120 juvenile Level 1 through 4 felonies cases. This is a drop from the current maximum of 250.

Adequate staffing is defined as having three support staff, such as paralegals, secretaries and investigators, for every four full-time attorneys. For public defenders working in offices with inadequate staffing, the proposed maximum caseloads have been further reduced.

The proposed caseloads are based on the 2020 study, The Indiana Project: An Analysis of the Indiana Public Defense System and Attorney Workload Standards, which was conducted for the commission by the American Bar Association and Crowe LLP.  Key takeaways from the study included that the commission’s weighting of major felony cases as all equal and, similarly, juvenile delinquency cases as equal is inappropriate.

Also, the study found the commission’s standards for appellate practice were outdated. Developed in the 1990s, the maximum caseload is more stringent because the commission has not accounted for the efficiencies gained through online research, word processing and e-filing.

Accordingly, the commission is proposing the current appellate categories be consolidated into a single category with the maximum caseload set at 50 for attorneys with adequate staffing. Life without parole appeals would be put into their own category, with the maximum caseload set at 25.

The suggested pay hike covers public defenders who work in counties that have no corresponding position in the prosecutor’s office. Currently, the threshold salary for these public defenders is $60,350. The commission wants to raise the annual compensation to $80,000 to stem the flow of experienced public defenders leaving to work in other positions, including the Department of Child Services.

“This proposal is the culmination of nearly two years of data-crunching and focus groups with practicing public defenders,” commission director and chief counsel Derrick Mason said in a news release. “But before the commission makes any final changes, we hope to hear from all interested parties.”

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