County moves to study public defender staffing

Bartholomew County officials are moving ahead with a plan that could lead to a public defenders office in Bartholomew County, similar to a prosecutor’s office.

Under an ordinance approved earlier this week, the county commisisoners and county judges will create a public defender board to look into the situation. Each of the county’s three courts now independently contracts with local attorneys to act as public defenders. Magistrate Joe Meek said that the board will look at the system and come back with a recommendation.

“This board would just be charged with going out and gathering some data, looking to determine if a public defender office would be the most effective and affordable way for us to provide public defender services,” Meek said.

Commissioner Larry Kleinhenz asked if Meek knew what the board would suggest. Meek said he did not know.

“I can tell you now that at least in Superior Court 2, our public defenders do three times the work that is recommended by the state guidelines,” Meek said. “So my guess is that they may recommend that we form a public defender office, but again they are going to have to see what the data says. ”

Between the three courts, nearly 2,000 defendants required public defenders last year and the numbers for this year are already trending higher.

If the county decides to go with a public defender’s office, the state will pick up part of the cost, Meek said. But that is only if the county goes through the whole investigation process including forming the board, which will be made up of three people of both parties who are interested in the role of public defenders. But those can’t be judges, prosecutors or police, Meek said.

The commissioners will appoint one person to the committee, and the judges will have two appointments. Meek expected results back by later this summer.