The League of Women Voters of Indiana has a very clear position on our judicial rights: “The courts should be fully financed by the state. Access should be guaranteed to all residents without delay, regardless of their financial situation.” In a recent League of Women Voters “Lunch with the League” program, Bryan Donaldson, Montgomery County’s Chief Public Defender, explained how his office works and why it is so vital in ensuring the rights of all citizens.
The current public defender’s office is just less than a year old. Prior to that, local attorneys handled cases for indigent clients on a contract basis but the workload became overwhelming. It was difficult to even find private attorneys who were willing to work with the courts. Their own practices would suffer when they acted as public defenders. There are still two contract attorneys involved with the office who handle cases when a conflict of interest occurs.
Judges determine at the first hearing whether a person charged with a crime has the means to pay for his/her defense. Their basic rule of thumb is that if someone is working full time, they are not eligible for assistance. If they indeed have no visible means of support, Bryan and his team of two other deputy public defenders along with a support staff of two, are called upon to defend the person charged.
They are an incredibly busy team. According to guidelines set by the State of Indiana, they are managing up to three times the number of clients recommended. Bryan will be approaching the County Council this coming year to hire at least one or two more attorneys to lessen the load. So what has caused this backload? It’s the opioid epidemic. The vast majority of crimes in Montgomery are related to this issue. Possessing drugs is only part of the problem. To get them, addicts will rob, steal, shoplift—whatever it takes to get the money to feed their habit. It all turns into higher crime rates. Also, as city and county law enforcement agencies add officers to their ranks, they (thankfully) make more arrests. This adds even more cases to an already full docket. Many of them end up in the public defender’s office.
There are some who argue that taxpayer money should not be spent on legal costs for those accused of crimes. The fact is that the sixth amendment to the U.S. Constitution clearly states “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right….to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” This right is also supported in the fourteenth amendment as well as in the Indiana Constitution.
Needless to say, more funding for the office would alleviate the workload and the backlog. The County Council controls their budget and determines their pay. There is no funding, for example, to hire an investigator to help them. Instead, the attorneys themselves make frequent visits to the county jail to work with clients and get questions answered. This is time that they could be using for more productive work in their office.
Attorney Donaldson was asked “How can you defend someone you know is guilty?” His answer came instantaneously, “It’s their right. “ We applaud his work and his team for all they are doing to ensure this right.
The League of Women Voters, open to men as well as women, is a nonpartisan, multi-issue political organization which encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For information about the League, visit the website: www.lwvmontco.org or send a message to LWV, P.O. Box 101, Crawfordsville, IN 47933.