ST. JOSEPH — There aren’t a lot of options to hiring new attorneys to replace contract lawyers, Chief Public Defender Chris Renna told the Berrien County Board of Commissioners on Thursday.
Commissioners later approved a resolution allowing Renna to request $2.5 million in state funding for indigent defense, which includes an additional $1 million over this year for five additional attorneys.
Renna, who took over the office last year, told members of the Administration Committee the attorneys contracted to handle misdemeanor cases weren’t going to be available next year.
One of those attorneys was hired by Renna to become the county’s chief assistant public defender, and another who handles about half the cases doesn’t want to continue that contract, he explained.
The hires will bring the contingent of full-time public defenders up to 17.
The attorneys are needed to meet the state standards, which include representation at the first court appearance, Renna said. Having a fully staffed office also increases efficiency in moving cases through court, he added.
The contract attorneys covered 2,750 misdemeanor cases last year.
The good news is that the Michigan Indigent Defense Commission and the state legislature are expected to pick up most of the tab for the additional employees.
Commissioners, on a 10-1 vote, approved a resolution for Renna to submit a request for funding of $3.1 million for the public defender’s office between Oct. 1 of this year and Sept. 20, 2020. That’s an increase of around $1 million in total funding for the current year.
The county’s share of the cost is estimated at $575,000, with the state providing $2.5 million. This year’s local share is $562,000, with $1.5 million coming from state funding. The local match is based on a three-average of spending by the county for indigent defense.
Before establishing its public defender’s office – the first for Berrien County and among the first in the state – legal defense for those who couldn’t afford to hire an attorney was provided by 15 contract lawyers, at a cost of $1.4 million.
The office was launched in January 2017 with nine attorneys, a part-time criminal investigator and support staff. This year three attorneys were added to handle arraignments, and the office has three full-time investigators.
Commissioner Ezra Scott objected to expanding the staff and voted against the resolution.
“I am concerned that this is getting way, way out of control,” Scott said.
He also noted that the building that houses the public defender’s office is short on space.
Renna has acknowledged that the county would have to rent space elsewhere to accommodate the new staff.
Commissioner Bill Chickering said he shared Scott’s concerns about the rising costs. He also said that the contract with the misdemeanor attorneys is basically dissolving, and that they must be replaced.
Chickering said he didn’t want the new hires to set off an “arms race” with the prosecutor’s office, and hoped they view the attorneys “not as additional weapons, but replacements.”
Prosecutor Michael Sepic has said that the public defender’s office has created more work for his staff members, without additional funding.
Administrator Bill Wolf pointed out that the attorneys will only be hired if the state agrees to fund the positions. State legislators promised to compensate counties for meeting the new defense standards, and allocated $84 million for that purpose this year.
“I think it’s money very well-spent,” Wolf said of the funding received by the county that has improved the level of service.
More standards being studied could put additional pressure on county and state coffers. Those include attorney caseloads and compensation, Renna said.
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