More State Funds Needed Badly

Just two-thirds of the way through the year, Jefferson County has nearly run out of money to pay attorneys who represent criminal defendants unable to cover their own costs. County commissioners may have no choice but to dig around their budget and find supplemental funding.

At the current rate of spending ($59,563 thus far in August), that could require nearly a quarter-million dollars.

Commissioners were told last week that thus far, $308,099 has been spent paying lawyers for indigent defendants. The rates are not excessive in comparison to what many attorneys earn for private-sector work. Even with increases approved last spring, the attorneys are paid $70 an hour for work in court and $50 an hour for preparation for court appearances.

Adding to the local concern is another, shared throughout Ohio. In May, commissioners were informed state reimbursements for indigent client attorneys are being reduced.

“I didn’t expect to run out of money in August,” Commissioner David Maple said of the program. “I thought maybe October.”

Money to keep the program operating has to be found. Commissioners have no choice in the matter, in view of court rulings for many years that mandate criminal defendants be furnished with counsel if they cannot afford to hire their own.

The elephant in this room is the drug abuse epidemic, of course. Can anyone doubt that a substantial portion of funds spent for court-appointed attorneys goes to those representing clients accused of drug crimes?

State officials should take another look at the public defender system. It needs supplemental funding badly. Jefferson is not the only county facing a crush of drug-related cases.

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