Butler County spends millions defending needy clients. Ohio could soon cover more of it.

If the state budget is passed as is, Butler County could potentially save about $1.25 million in indigent defense costs by 2021.

Between Gov. Mike DeWine and the Ohio House, there is $155 million more in the upcoming biennial budget for public defender reimbursement. The governor added $60 million per year and the House $35 million in the second year of the spending plan.

In his state of the state address DeWine said, “We want to be true partners with local governments,” and announced the new infusion of money to pay for legal representation for people who can’t afford a lawyer, “to help ensure that every Ohioan receives a fair trial — as is their Constitutional right.”

For 2019 the Butler County Public Defender Commission’s budget was $2.1 million, and the lawyers expected to receive 42 percent reimbursement from the state, about $882,000. If the state Senate concurs with this item in the budget some are predicting 100 percent of the costs to counties would be reimbursed.

Ohio Public Defender Tim Young “guesstimates” it will be closer to 70 percent the first year and maybe 90 percent the second. He said there are nine counties that haven’t changed their appointed counsel rates since the 1980s and the system is $40 million underfunded.

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“You’ve got public defenders earning 20, 30 percent less than the prosecutors in the exact same county, same years of service, same experience, those kinds of things are going to change I would expect,” Young said. “I would expect a number of counties will take this opportunity to improve the system issues that have languished so long when the state wasn’t doing its share.”

Jack Grove, chairman of the county’s public defender commission, said he doesn’t know what impact the influx of cash will have here.

“We don’t know because the legislation hasn’t been adopted and I don’t know what strings are attached,” he said. “When they give you money usually strings are attached.”

The commission met Tuesday, and Grove said they are not going to be making any big moves, like taking the system full-time. He said they have been able to recruit “very outstanding lawyers” because they have kept it part-time. He said they have about 40 assistant public defenders, who all run their own practices as well.

The commission has attorneys assigned to the Area Courts, Fairfield and Hamilton municipal courts, the common pleas courts and specialty courts.

Grove said the biggest impact will probably be to county’s general fund, because they have no immediate plans to

“I don’t see there being a big change if there is a 100 percent reimbursement,” Grove said. “This is a mandated service. We have a no frills budget we don’t even have any discretionary money in the budget. We make due. Every year the county commissioners are responsive to our needs and we’re in competition with all the other agencies that have need.”

Commissioner Cindy Carpenter said if the public defenders ask her for more staff or raises, she’ll provide them.

“I would without question because the decision is going to be made by the board, they’re not going to over spend, they never have,” she said. “It’ll be wonderful for them to have enough money to do the job they really want to do.”

Common Pleas Court Presiding Judge Noah Powers said the public defenders play a critical and ever increasing role in the criminal justice system because most defendants these days don’t have money to pay a lawyer. He said they need to make sure they have competent counsel representing these people so their constitutional rights are protected and justice served.

“The concern we have for them is working out of their own offices, they’ve got overhead that they’ve got to expend and things like that,” he said. “You’ve got to make it worthwhile for them otherwise why do they want to do it? Unless they just want to be nice guys. You can only be so nice a person and still make a living.”

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