Court-appointed lawyers get their first raise in Butler County in 16 years

The Butler County Public Defenders office is asking the commissioners permission to hire seven part-time attorneys and five administrative staffers in 2020. The state boosted reimbursement rates this summer so 90 percent of the cost would be covered.

Butler County attorneys who are appointed by judges to represent indigent defendants have received their first hourly rate hike in about 16 years.

Court-appointed attorneys were making $40 per hour for work done outside of court and $50 per hour while they are representing clients in court. The Butler County commissioners recently approved a rate hike, the first since 2004, to a flat $60 hourly fee.

Butler County Common Pleas Judge Charles Pater said “it’s been a long, long time” since the rate was increased and the change is long overdue.

“For the attorneys to do their jobs at all they have quite a bit of overhead that they have to provide for before they make any money,” Pater told the Journal-News. “With the amount that they were being paid, it was difficult I’m sure to make much money after they paid their overhead.”

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When there is a conflict in a case, such as indigent co-defendants who can’t both be represented the Butler County Public Defender’s Office or a capital murder case the public defenders don’t handle, the common pleas judges will appoint a “conflict” attorney.

“The appointed counsel are completely disconnected from the Public Defender Commission,” Commission Chair Jack Grove said. “It has to be that way because if there are multiple defendants on one indictment and one decided to flip on the other ones that creates a conflict of interest.”

He said it occurs in less than 10 percent of the cases.

Common Pleas Court Administrator Wayne Gilkison budgeted $175,000 for appointed counsel this year and said he doesn’t believe the commissioners’ raise will alter that amount. Last year Gilkison said there were 152 cases where the courts appointed counsel and it cost $108,679.

Prior to the formation of the Public Defender Commission in 2011, Grove said all indigent defendants were assigned attorneys by the bench, and that was costly.

“When we revamped the public defender system they were all appointed counsel in the Common Pleas Court and then we started providing that service, as a cost control measure actually,” Grove said. “Because the expense was runaway.”

The public defenders are part-time salaried attorneys who also maintain private practices. The 40-some attorneys earn between $28,852 to $42,000, according to county budget documents.

The actual increase to the county budget will be negligible since the state reimbursement rate to counties increased to around 70 percent last fiscal year and is expected to go to 90 percent in July.

Gov. Mike DeWine and the general assembly added $154 million to the biennium budget last summer, $59 million this fiscal year and $95 million through 2021. The county’s share is around $1.25 million over two years.

For 2019 the Public Defender Commission’s budget was $2.1 million, and the lawyers expected to receive 42 percent reimbursement — the old reimbursement rate — from the state, or around $882,000.

Given beefed up state funding and overworked public defenders, the Public Defenders Office asked the commissioners to approve seven part-time public defenders and five full-time support staff in the 2020 budget. At last count four additional part-time public defenders and one full-time staffer were approved.

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