Augusta Commission members face a request today to give nearly half a million dollars extra for legal representation for the poor.
The money is needed to provide defense attorneys for people accused of crimes ranging from traffic tickets to murder in the Augusta Judicial Circuit.
"If you don't pay them, you shut the courts down," said attorney John "Jack" Long, the chairman of the local indigent defense committee, which oversees the appointment and payment of private attorneys to represent those who cannot afford to hire lawyers.
Between paying for representation for those charged with county violations and misdemeanor offenses and those charged with felony crimes, $1,865,000 has already been spent this year.
The average monthly cost to pay for felony defense work is about $90,000, Mr. Long said, but only $81,221 is left in the account.
The indigent defense committee needs another $460,000 to finish the year and ensure there's enough money to pay attorneys' bills that might not be completed until next year, Mr. Long said.
According to the city's accounting records, indigent defense is over its budget by nearly $36,000.
Less than half of the amount is for services directly related to the representation of poor people accused of crimes.
Of similar-size counties in Georgia, Richmond County reported the highest amount for administrative costs - 30 percent of the total budget, according to reports in The Augusta Chronicle last year.
Mr. Long attributed the budget blow this year to death penalty defense work and the new load of representing poor people accused of misdemeanors and violation of local ordinances.
Ron Cross, the chairman of the Columbia County commission and an indigent defense committee member, said Columbia and Burke counties will be asked to assist with the budget increase. The three counties split the cost of indigent defense, paying a percentage based on population.
After the first of the year, the method of providing legal assistance changes with a new statewide system of public defender offices.
Mr. Long said the state will increase its share for indigent defense, from the 11 percent to 12 percent it now provides to 50 percent after Jan. 1.
Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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