Pulaski Superior Court Faces Budget Shortfall for Pauper Counsel, Following Uptick in Cases

An increasing number of court cases in Pulaski County has led to some challenges when it comes to providing legal representation for those who can’t afford it. Superior Court Judge Crystal Brucker Kocher told the county council and commissioners Monday that the number of criminal filings increased from 715 in 2015 to 1,295 in 2017. During that same period, the number of felony and misdemeanor cases rose from 351 to 672.

She said that a large percentage of those cases involved court-appointed counsel. Part of the problem is that under state rules, the county’s contract public defender is limited to 90 cases. Up until now, council members have been reluctant to add a second public defender, but Kocher said the current system is no longer working. “You all wanted to wait and see how things went, so you gave me another $20,000,” she reminded council members. “We are through that already. It’s gone. And that is not even for any 2018 cases. Those are only 2017 cases.”

She thinks the most cost-effective option going forward is an all-contract-public-defender system for Superior Court, “Meaning a contract public defender gets a 40-percent reimbursement if they’re all reimbursable cases. Say I had two contract public defenders who had all reimbursable cases, all felony cases. Together, you would pay them about $77,714. Forty-percent reimbursement on that is going to be, I think, around $31,000, I figured.”

Kocher added that while public defenders for misdemeanor cases aren’t eligible for state reimbursement, there’s no limit to how many cases each attorney may take. “So I could assign all of my misdemeanor cases to two additional contract PDs who only do misdemeanor cases, not have to meet those quotas – I’m not being reimbursed on those anyway – pay them maybe $30,000, instead of the $38,000, they take care of all the misdemeanor cases.”

She said that such a contract may draw interest from some newer attorneys. “The loan forgiveness program says that if you work in a public service position for at least 10 years, you could qualify for loan forgiveness,” she explained. “So we have a couple of younger local attorneys who have gone out on their own, they’ve approached both [Circuit Court] Judge [Michael Shurn] and I about, ‘Hey, is this something that we could look at?’ The incentive to them is getting rid of their $100,000 school loan, and so they might be willing to take a $25,000, $30,000 contract.”

In the end, the county council and commissioners decided to let Judge Kocher proceed with researching the additional contracts. Council members then voted to advertise a $40,000 additional appropriation request for the Superior Court Pauper Counsel budget. It will formally be considered at a future meeting.