As Mobile is planning to launch a public defender’s office, officials in Baldwin County say they’re content to stick with a system that contracts attorneys to represent defendants who can’t afford one on their own.
Across the state, Alabama spent more than $71 million on indigent criminal defense in 2018, according to data released by the Office of Indigent Defense Services (OIDS). The dollars funded public defenders’ offices, paid for contracted defense attorneys and reimbursed lawyers appointed on a case-by-case basis.
For years, officials in Baldwin County have contracted a handful of local attorneys to represent indigent criminal defendants — a need that has expanded as the population has continued to grow. Each year, those contracts are awarded to dozens of attorneys by OIDS with input from a local advisory committee.
That group currently consists of Presiding Circuit Judge Scott Taylor, Probate Judge Harry D’Olive and attorneys Warren T. Harbison, Ken Raines and Elizabeth Campbell. While OIDS is technically in charge of what system a county uses and who gets contracts, it almost always defers to these local committees.
A majority of Baldwin County’s advisory board voted last month to continue using the contract system into 2020 — a system Taylor believes is less expensive and a good fit for Baldwin County.
“In my opinion, the system we have in place works great based on the resources that we have,” Taylor told Lagniappe. “We couldn’t afford to establish a public defender’s office where you’re staffing all of those attorneys fulltime. The way we’re doing it is very cost effective, but I also feel like we’ve got some really good, very qualified attorneys. So, the level of representation is very high as well.”
Taylor said the local advisory committee is still in the process of finalizing contracts with the attorneys selected for fiscal year 2020. However, there has typically been very little change in that roster from year to year. In 2018, 31 contracted attorneys handled 5,835 cases for indigent defendants in Baldwin County.
It’s difficult to say how many of those cases might be attributed to the same defendant or might be related to the same case as it moved from district court and into circuit court, but according to OIDS, the state of Alabama paid those 31 contract attorneys $1.2 million for indigent defense work throughout the county.
Those attorneys handle cases in district, circuit, juvenile, drug and appellate courts.
Depending on the nature of the work they performed and the number of cases they handled, those contracted attorneys made anywhere from $24,000 to $55,000 last year. Most of the contracts are considered part time, as the attorneys aren’t prevented from practicing privately.
The caseloads and compensation for indigent defense attorneys can vary depending on the type of cases they handle. For instance, one Baldwin County attorney made $24,996 in 2018 working only 10 cases, but those were in appellate court, which typically require more time and expertise. Another attorney handled 840 cases and took home $55,000, but those mostly involved misdemeanors in district court.
Fairhope attorney Brett Anderson, who made about $55,000 last year handling 627 district court cases, spoke to Lagniappe recently about the indigent work he performs as part of his contract with OIDS. While his caseload from 2018 might seem high, Anderson said most of that work was related to simple misdemeanors, many of which were resolved quickly through plea agreements with prosecutors.
“Ultimately, that saves the system a lot of time and money because they aren’t indicted, there’s no discovery and it doesn’t go through the grand jury process,” Anderson said. “It speeds things up for everybody — the victim, the defendant, the families and for the court.”
Anderson did say every indigent defendant has the right to take his or her case all the way to circuit court and beyond, but when that happens in Baldwin County, another contracted attorney will take over.
In circuit court, each judge has four contracted attorneys handling the cases on their dockets. Taylor said the advisory board assigns those attorneys to each courtroom, but often relies on input from the judges themselves. He said having the same prosecutors, indigent attorneys and judge makes scheduling easier.
“If they’re randomly assigned, you may have an attorney with four cases in four different courtrooms,” he said. “The judge [requests] the attorneys, and we take that into consideration, but we’re not bound to it.”
While the bulk of indigent cases are handled through these contracts, each attorney specifies a maximum number of cases they’ll take on as part of their agreement with OIDS. When none of the contracted lawyers are able, the judge presiding over an indigent case is still able to appoint any attorney for the job.
In 2018, OIDS sent another $148,064 to Baldwin County to pay appointed attorneys, though almost all judicial circuits throughout Alabama require additional appointments. That typically happens due to the potential for conflicts of interest or when a contracted attorney’s caseload has gotten too high.
According to OIDS Director Chris Roberts, every contract attorney in the state is required to submit public monthly reports to his office, which helps keep tabs on how many cases they’re defending. He told Lagniappe it’s important to make sure those attorneys aren’t taking on more work than they can handle.
“Attorneys have to have adequate time to devote to each of those clients and investigate their cases properly because that’s a vital part of any indigent defense system,” Roberts said. “We want to make sure they’re providing adequate representation to every one of their clients.”
Anderson, who previously worked as a Baldwin County assistant district attorney, said he believes the current system works well not only for defendants but also for prosecutors and the system overall. He said contract lawyers typically focus only on criminal law and the majority have years of defense experience.
“Some people will ask us: ‘Are you a contract attorney or a real attorney?’ We’re both,” Anderson said. “As a prosecutor, I had around 50 cases go all the way to a jury trial, and most of those were against contract attorneys. A lot of them are still the same people, and I know they know what they’re doing.”
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