Issue Area 1: Rising Costs in Public Defender Services Warrants Maximizing
the Use of Public Defenders Instead of Private Attorneys.
Public Defender Services provides publicly funded legal representation for indigent clients. These are clients who meet certain income guidelines and cannot afford legal representation. There are 15 Public Defender Corporations (PDC's) representing 15 of the 31 circuit courts in the state (see Appendix A). There are currently 102 public defenders employed in PDC's. The central office, located in Charleston, employees eight full-time staff.
When private attorneys are used to represent indigent clients, it generally costs the state
more than if public defenders are used. The primary reason for the higher cost is a recent court
case that established rates of compensation for private attorneys. These rates are currently in
statute. To some extent private attorneys are needed particularly when PDC's have conflicts of
interest. However, the reliance on private attorneys can be reduced by (1) providing public
defenders to circuit courts that do not have PDC's, (2) by increasing public defenders in offices
where caseload levels require heavier use of private attorneys, and (3) by having multiple PDC's in
large circuits to reduce conflicts of interest and to reduce caseload problems.
The Public Defender Services Office established the goal of having public defenders represent 65% of cases in those circuits that have a PDC. The agency has accomplished this goal in those circuits. However, since there are circuits that do not have PDC's, the statewide percentage of cases closed by public defenders in FY 1997 is 54%.
The state has done well in expanding the public defender system to its current level. With more than half the number of closed cases worked by public defenders, the state has experienced significant cost savings. This is illustrated in that PDC expenditures have increased by $4.5 million since FY 1994, but total expenditures have increased by only $2.2 million because private attorneys were used less. However, the Legislative Auditor believes that data supports increasing the number of PDC's and adding additional PDC's in large circuits to reduce conflicts of interest and excessive caseloads, thereby cutting costs of Public Defender Services.
The Legislative Auditor estimates that a cost savings could be realized by expanding the number of public defenders and corporations into all 31 judicial circuits. The potential cost savings assumes at a minimum the opening of a new PDC in each of the 16 circuits that do not currently have a corporation office, and at a maximum savings estimate assuming that the use of private attorneys is eliminated and public defenders handle every case. According to calculations by the Legislative Auditor the expansion of Public Defender Services could realize a savings ranging from $2,205,706 to $7,468,789.