Originally created 08/13/02

Costs rise for Augusta's indigent defense



The cost of defending the poor will escalate in Augusta courts, beginning today.

Local indigent defense officials say the increase is the result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that requires municipalities to offer court-appointed lawyers to the indigent, even when they're prosecuted for crimes that don't carry a jail sentence.

Before the court's May 20 ruling, only indigents in felony cases or misdemeanor cases that could carry a jail sentence had to be offered counsel.

But Augusta's indigent defense office, which has asked city officials for more than $217,000 through the end of this year to fund increased services, was "quicker on the uptake than most folks," reports Michael Shapiro, the executive director of the Georgia Indigent Defense Council.

"Everybody's going to be affected," Mr. Shapiro said, "but the degree of that effect depends on who you talk to."

Augusta commissioners deferred a decision on the request for another two weeks while they study possible funding sources.

In the interim, however, four more lawyers will be retained by the city's indigent defense office, a move that is expected to cost taxpayers as much as $30,000 by Sept. 1.

The Augusta Indigent Defense Committee asked an Augusta Commission committee Monday afternoon for a $217,555 budget amendment, which would pay for several new attorneys, investigators and administrative staff.

The increased staff would allow the Augusta circuit to comply with Alabama vs. Shelton, a 5-4 Supreme Court decision that requires municipalities to make available court-appointed lawyers to anyone charged with minor ordinance violations or misdemeanors.

More than half of those who will now be offered indigent defense are expected to refuse, said Jack Long, the chairman of the local indigent defense committee. But defendants are now required to sign a waiver of refusal, something that must be overseen by a trained professional, he said.

Already, Georgia taxpayers spend an estimated $55.4 million annually on indigent defense, the state council reports. Officials estimate that the Supreme Court's ruling will increase statewide costs $10 million to $30 million annually.

Mr. Long told Augusta commissioners that he estimates it will cost the Augusta Judicial Circuit close to $500,000 more annually.

Local court officials say they are concerned that a failure to comply with the ruling would allow those charged with crimes to avoid paying court fines.

Often, an indigent defendant is placed on probation and permitted to pay court fines over an extended period of time. A failure to pay results in a revocation of probation and jail time. Some interpretations of the court's ruling say a judge could not revoke probation and send a defendant to jail if indigent defense was not offered initially.

To prevent that, four additional indigent defense attorneys will staff two state court sessions, starting today, Mr. Long said.

The city will spend the next two weeks trying to determine whether an in-house staff would be more cost-effective than farming out legal work.

"We do understand the necessity of this," Commissioner Lee Beard said. "The commission will move with speed."

Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215 or heidi.williams@augustachronicle.com.