By the end of the year, Jefferson County commissioners may have spent nearly $300,000 to provide attorneys for people accused of crimes who can't afford to pay for their own lawyers. Put that in perspective: The amount is enough to hire two or three new deputies for Sheriff Fred Abdalla's department, and provide cruisers and gasoline for them to patrol the county.
During their meeting Wednesday, commissioners were informed that thus far this year, about $142,000 has been spent on attorneys for indigent defendants. That is most of the $165,000 appropriated for the purpose for the entire year, and the news prompted commissioners to approve transferring another $49,437 into the account.
At that rate, the county's expenses for the purpose will approach $300,000 by the end of the year, though it needs to be noted the state reimburses the county for 25 percent of what is spent on the program.
Between paying for the state's public defender office and covering the cost of private attorneys appointed for indigent defendants, expenses to ensure those accused of crimes are represented are high in Ohio. The state Public Defender Office reports spending about $130 million a year.
Ensuring those accused of crimes cannot be "railroaded" because they lack counsel is both a tradition and a constitutional requirement in the United States. But the cost of safeguarding the right to a fair trial is skyrocketing. During the past decade, the number of indigent defendants requiring such aid has increased from about 317,000 to about 446,000 a year.
State law provides for reimbursement of attorney costs to counties and the state in cases where defendants, once judged indigent, acquire the resources to do so. Clearly, that is a long shot in most situations. Especially if convicted, defendants are unlikely to obtain enough money to help defray the costs of their lawyers.
Given the rapidly growing cost of the program, however, it is worth taking another look at whether enough is being done to recover taxpayers' money spent on attorneys for indigent defendants. If even a fraction of the funds could be returned to counties and the state, fewer cutbacks in other services - including law enforcement - might be necessary.