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Public Defender May Be Prudent

One of our fundamental rights as Americans is that of receiving fair trials when we are accused of crimes. To that end, defendants are entitled to representation by attorneys.

But Jefferson County is among many places where it is becoming more and more difficult to find lawyers willing to accept court appointment to defend clients who cannot afford their own counsel. Just four lawyers in the whole county are willing to take such cases, county commissioners were told last week.

Appeals court judges care not about the difficulty counties have in providing attorneys for clients ruled to be indigent. Either such representation is provided, or cases can be thrown out of court.

In Columbus as well as Steubenville, the challenge is viewed as one that must be addressed. State legislators are considering a bill to provide higher education assistance to those who agree to serve as public defenders once they leave college.

Jefferson County commissioners agreed last week to form a committee to consider establishment of a formal public defender’s office for the county.

That may be feasible in light of an increase in the rate at which the state reimburses counties for the cost of providing court-appointed attorneys. In the past, the reimbursement rate had been 42%. It is expected to increase to 90% this year.

Establishing a public defender’s office would be no guarantee Jefferson County could have enough lawyers available to handle all indigent defendants. However, such an office could ensure that the county does not have to rely solely on attorneys in private practice.

Members of the committee include two judges, an attorney, Commissioner David Maple and county Auditor E.J. Conn. If they conclude a public defender’s office can be set up without creating a new burden for taxpayers, commissioners should authorize one.

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