Last week, Mobile County’s Indigent Defense Advisory Council moved to establish a local public defender’s office that will represent accused criminals who cannot afford to hire legal counsel.
The decision is a significant shift from the current system for indigent defense, where attorneys are appointed to handle cases by the judges presiding over them. It also represents the culmination of a recent push from activists, local judges and state officials who wanted to see the change in Mobile.
“We kept hearing about mass incarceration and concerns about that, and one of the ways we address that, outside of state and federal efforts, is by looking at local reforms,” Daniel Schwartz, executive director of Faith in Action Alabama, said. “We think that creating a public defender’s office is instrumental in making sure that indigent defendants get high-quality legal services.”
Schwartz said Faith in Action Alabama’s Mobile hub has been working for the past two years to establish a public defender’s office in response to some complaints from indigent defendants who claimed their interests weren’t being properly represented in the appointed system. Fredrick Thompson, who leads the Mobile Hub, said he was happy to see the change, but believes there is still work to be done.
“We want to make sure that everyone has adequate representation, and we know that those who have no money do not receive the same kind of treatment as those who do,” he said. “We thank God for this victory today, but the battle is still before us as far as helping the court system do what it needs to do.”
In Alabama, the Office of Indigent Defense Services (OIDS), a division of the state department of finance, oversees and funds indigent defense, but the local committees determine how each judicial circuit will provide legal representation for those who qualify for assistance.
Each year, those committees around the state recommend either an appointment system, a public defender’s office or a third option where attorneys are contracted by the courts. The final decision rests with OIDS, but since it was established in 2011, the office has yet to override a local recommendation.
The current members of Mobile County’s advisory board are Presiding Circuit Judge John Lockett and Mobile Bar Association President Mark Newell as well as local attorneys James Brandyburg, Ashley Cameron White and Glenn Davidson. Thursday, the group voted 4-1 to adopt a public defender system.
Lockett told Lagniappe last week he’s supported the idea of public defender’s office for some time because it could help streamline the way indigent defense is handled and make courts more efficient. Davidson acknowledged some lawyers did not want to see a shift to a public defender system, but said he believes a public defender’s office would raise the standard of representation for all defendants.
“There are lawyers that do great jobs and there are lawyers that do less than great jobs, but I believe that this system will help every defendant that comes before the court whether they’re represented by the office or not,” he said. “This office will be, or it should be, a resource for every lawyer that is practicing criminal defense in this county.”
Though there are still many steps to complete, Mobile is on its way to becoming the eighth county to operate a public defender’s office — joining Jefferson (Birmingham), Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Shelby, Walker, Escambia and a joint office in Conecuh and Monroe counties.
As Lagniappe has reported, all of the counties that use a public defender system still use appointed lawyers in a number of cases where there’s some kind of conflict of interest with the public defender’s office or when the office’s caseloads get too great to manage effectively.
While Newell was the only committee member to vote against the shift, he said he’ll still do what he can to support the new public defender’s office once it’s off the ground and established locally.
“I don’t want it to be interpreted that the lawyers don’t want this,” Newell said. “Even though I may be the only ‘no’ vote today, I promise you that I will do everything I can to support our system. I think a public defender system will work, and I’ll do everything I can to support it.”
Several Democrats from the local legislative delegation attended the hearing and appeared to be in support of the change. Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile, said she and her colleagues were prepared to work in Montgomery to ensure the new office is adequately funded.
“We have to make sure that we have fairness in our judicial system, but also that we have the appearance of fairness,” Drummond said. “We feel sure that this will be something that helps create fairness, even if it’s only in perception, but we’re also hoping to see an uptick in quality, and we’ll do what we can to help in that endeavor.”
After the vote, Lockett said the next step in the process would be to submit the committee’s recommendation to OIDS Division Director Chris Roberts, who has previously expressed his support for Mobile adopting a public defender system and is expected to accept the recommendation.
Once that has occurred, the committee will make an official announcement of its intent to establish the office and begin searching for someone to take the lead role as the public defender. When that leader has been chosen, the committee’s role in the process will be over and the office will start building itself.
Lockett said it would then be up to the newly appointed public defender to build “what would essentially be the biggest law firm in the city” from the ground up. There have been a few names floating around of defense lawyers who might be interested in the job, but no one has formally thrown their hat in the ring.
The staff of the public defender’s office, like attorneys appointed by judges to represent indigent defendants, will be paid through OIDS. That funding comes from a different pot of money than is used to pay for the judicial system, which is funded through the Administrative Office of Courts.
If approved by the state, it’s unclear how long it might be until the public defender’s office is up and running. Lockett guessed that could be anywhere from a year to two years depending on how the selection process moves along. However, he said this process is as new to the committee as everyone else.
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