SUNDAY EDITION | Swamped public defenders get funding boost from - WDRB 41 Louisville News

SUNDAY EDITION | Swamped public defenders get funding boost from city

Posted: Updated: Jun 27, 2014 08:46 PM
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- By 9:30 on a recent morning, Louisville Metro Public Defender Adam Braunbeck had already visited Metro Corrections, Jefferson Circuit Court, two district courtrooms and met with prosecutors, simultaneously representing clients in 10 cases.

With some defendants scheduled to be in different courtrooms at the same time, Braunbeck hardly paused as he shuttled back and forth between defendants and prosecutors, settling some cases with plea deals and pushing others to later dates. He finished his morning docket just after noon and called it, "a light day."

Braunbeck, however, was far from done. He would be back in court by 1 p.m. and not leave his office until after 8 p.m. He said 12-hour days are typical for public defenders, who represent defendants who cannot afford to hire a private attorney. So is working at least a few hours on the weekend.

"Our attorneys are dealing with the caseload by working as much as two attorneys would," said Braunbeck, one of 63 public defenders in the Louisville office. "If you don’t do that, you are not doing everything you need to do for your case."

Attorneys in the Louisville public defender's office have the highest workload in the state – an average of more than 700 cases per year. In recent years, the job's low pay and constant stress have caused veteran lawyers to leave and led the office to threaten to turn away some clients. 

Louisville public defenders start at an annual salary of $38,770 – less than half the median pay for all lawyers in the metro area, $82,430 -- and have had no raises for the last six years.

But after years of pleading for more funding, Braunbeck and his colleagues finally have help on the way.

In what came as a surprise to the Metro Council earlier this month, Ed Monahan, head of the state’s Department of Public Advocacy, said metro government needed to pony up an additional $667,000, or a 30 percent increase, for the public defender’s office in the fiscal year that begins on Tuesday.

In a letter to city officials last month, Monahan said that he has "grave concerns" about the workload of public defenders in Louisville.

Each attorney opens an average of 575 new cases per year right now, the highest in the state and "substantially" exceeding the "ethical level" based on national workload standards, Monahan wrote to Louisville's Chief Public Defender Dan Goyette and city officials May 27.

Monahan said Metro government is obligated under state law to abide by his requested increase in funding for the office, which is a shared responsibility among the city and state government.

About two-thirds of the public defender's office's $7.6 million annual budget comes from the state; about one-third from the city. Metro government will chip in $2.87 million in the fiscal year beginning Tuesday, up from $2.2 million currently. (The state is paying about $200,000 more Monahan said.)

City officials scrambled to find the additional money – an amount Metro Council President Jim King called "huge." The increase wasn't even requested until after Mayor Greg Fischer had released his proposed 2014-15 budget.

"They said we've got to have this money, and we found it," said Fischer spokesman Chris Poynter.

Metro cut back on police overtime, delayed some projects and put off a few new hires because of the public defender's office and other changes in the proposed budget, he said.

Yet, with caseloads mounting for years, it's only now that Monahan is demanding a big increase in the Louisville office's budget.

"It's not happened since I've been budget chair," said Budget Committee Chair Marianne Butler of Monahan's push for more funds.

In an email, Monahan said he's "doing a better job now of exercising my statutory responsibility to address" high workloads in the Louisville office.

"I wish I had addressed it sooner," Monahan said in a follow up interview. "I'm more focused on it now."

The additional funding will lead to "at least a modest pay increase" for current staff members, address "infrastructure" issues like outdated computers and broken down office equipment and allow more public defenders to be hired, Goyette said.

Goyette estimated an additional 14 lawyers are needed to comply with national standards that recommend public defenders open no more than 400 misdemeanor, 150 felony or 200 juvenile cases per year. 

The hope is to improve conditions that have resulted in several long-time public defenders leaving the office in recent years.

"Not only did we not get raises, but we got pay cuts because they were furloughing us, so at some point what are you going to do," said Misty Vantrease, who left for private practice in 2011 after a decade with the Louisville public defender’s office. "I loved that job, but I was making less money every year."

Braunbeck, who has been with the office just under three years, said it is tough to put in the type of hours public defenders do and have a family, saying he is not sure he could continue if he and his wife have children.

"Nobody is doing it for the money," said Braunbeck, 35. "A lot of people can’t do it for that many years. It’s not fair to your kids and spouse. … The work never stops."

Private attorneys, judges and prosecutors say it's a misconception that public defenders are not as talented as their counterparts. In fact, they are the backbone of the courthouse, handling a large percentage of the criminal cases in the city.

"This community is fortunate to have a really strong public defender's office," said Scott C. Cox, a high profile private defense attorney. "Even though they are overworked…the public is well served by them and their office."

Monahan has signaled that he will continue to seek increases in the Louisville office's budget, saying in his letter to Goyette that the additional funding this upcoming fiscal year from Metro government "will do little to meet your pressing needs."

And in his e-mail to WDRB, Monahan said he is "intent on further having (the funding problems) addressed in future years."

For the 2016 fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2015, Metro government will have to provide $2.9 million, a 1 percent increase from the 2015 fiscal year, Monahan said.

"The caseloads have to be brought down to an ethical level," he said in an interview. "This is the beginning of that process."

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