Could a Shortage of Public Defenders Bankrupt Franklin County?
As felony cases continue to mount, Franklin County is looking to resolve a shortage of public defenders.
County Administrator Mike Gonzalez says the county has two lawyers in the public defense system. The rest work on a contractual basis.
"When the pandemic hit, the court system essentially stopped. So, all these felony cases kept piling up and piling up and piling up and when finally (the county) was ready to try cases, we realized there were no lawyers available." Gonzalez said.
Reasons why Franklin County and others face a shortfall are plenty. Public Defense is not a glamorous profession, it's underfunded, and attorneys are overworked. Plus, prosecutors can earn double of what a public defender makes at $85,000.
"You've got to have a high bar when you come into this defense game. For instance, in our prosecutor's office, person can graduate from law school, essentially pass the bar, start practicing as a prosecuting attorney," Gonzalez said. "On the defense side, there's much higher stipulations. You have to have so many felony cases, class A's, class B's, class C's, before you can actually defend somebody."
Gonzalez says Senator Nikki Torres is proposing legislation to help with the backlog of cases which stands at 75 to 80 in Franklin County. Without funding assistance, Gonzalez worries a mandate to resolve these cases could bankrupt the county.
"We just put $600,000 into our prosecuting attorney's office, into our public defender's office at $300,000 each to hire contract lawyers to give bonuses if you want to come to Franklin County to just stabilize the system, but that's certainly a band aid approach."
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