MOULTRIE — The new public defender system isn’t saving the county money, countered the chief Superior Court judge to prior assertions by the new public defender.

Southern Judicial Circuit Chief Judge H. Arthur McLane recently pointed out that Public Defender J. Kent Edwards didn’t factor in cost recovery into his figures. Under the former appointed system, judges could tack on court costs as a condition of probation on a case by case basis. Now, judges can only seek cost recovery in a few conflicted cases not handled by the public defender’s office.

When cost recovery is considered, the county hasn’t saved an average of $90 per case as Edwards had said, McLane contended. Edwards said that cost recovery figures hadn’t been furnished to his office at the time The Observer printed his assessment of the year-old program.

“I thought before they ever started this thing and I still think that the public defender system is going to end up costing the taxpayers of the state both on a statewide basis and within the counties and circuits a great deal more money than it would have cost if they never would have passed this thing,” McLane said.

Colquitt County paid $276,875.24 for the new system in 2005, its startup year, and averaged $358.18 per case. The current budget has decreased $8,600 to $268,178.34, Edwards said.

Court officials admit comparing the former appointed system to the new public defender system is like comparing apples to oranges. Still, they maintain, the new system is more cumbersome and time consuming and will cost taxpayers more money.

Death penalty costs will skew average cost figures as well. Under the new system, the expense of death penalty cases now goes to the state and no longer directly to the county, circuit court administrator Tim Hendrick explained. For instance in 2002, the county’s cost for a death penalty case was $9,491.77. In 2003, a death penalty case cost the county $4,358, he said.

McLane took it further. Large cases, such as an aggravated child molestation with pricey medical testimony, DNA evidence and expert testimony, can skew the numbers just as much. Also, sometimes a public defender serving another county must come in to work a Colquitt County case and vice versa.

“Not only that, but you’ve got variations between different counties, so Kent’s calculation of putting Colquitt County’s percentage of the budget might or might not be abstractly accurate as far as the true cost per case is concerned,” McLane said.

Under the appointed system, the actual cost per county could be more easily determined. Plus now, the public defender system adds overhead costs for new offices that the appointed system didn’t need, he said.

A major impact of the new system is the increasing number of defendants now qualifying for indigent defense. The new standard of indigency — an income of 150 percent of the federal poverty level — is much more liberal than the circuit’s former criteria so that the number of indigent cases is naturally increased. In 2005, the number of felony and juvenile cases in Colquitt County handled by the public defender’s office was 813, up from 568 in 2004, 493 in 2003 and 509 in 2002.

“Although our caseload continues to escalate, we are striving to keep the cost per case as low as possible,” Edwards said.

More motions are coming before the court under the public defender system making much more work for everybody and run up the cost, McLane said. A hired attorney will weed through unnecessary motions whereas a public defender will feel pressure to prove proper representation, he explained. Crowding the courts without proper manpower leads to errors and neglect, he said.

“We’re having to go to a fourth day of criminal motions hearings in Valdosta. We used to be able to do it in two or two and a half,” he said.

In addition, the public defender system is bound to bring more cases to trial, McLane said, thus further escalating the cost to the taxpayer.

The chief judge is of the opinion that the circuit would be better off back with the appointed system that was honed over many years to a fairly well-oiled machine.

“... We weren’t broke in the Southern Circuit, and therefore, we saw no need to fix it,” he said, assuming the circuit’s other judges still hold the same opinion. “We felt like we had a program that was operating well. The attorneys were working hard for their clients. We were doing OK. We were doing it as efficiently as we could from the standpoint of the taxpayers.”

Added to the court’s grievances is pending legislation, H.B. 1340, that will make the new system even more cumbersome and more expensive, McLane said. The bill would provide for an indigent defense coordinator to be responsible for reviewing applications for legal defense services, provide for collection of application fee and collect the state’s $50 application fee, that McLane said is often waived at the public defender’s office request. Also, the chief judge will define the duties of the indigent defense coordinator as he did under the appointed system.

“Obviously what you’re doing there is creating more jobs, which means it’s going to cost taxpayers more money,” McLane said.

“We were already doing that. They were saying that the judges were messing the whole system up. What they’re doing is telling us we’ve got to get back in the business of running indigent defense program, but we’re not going to have any control over it,” he said.

When asked if the circuit will strive for a law change to allow a multi-county circuit the opportunity to opt out, McLane said, “I think the Southern Circuit would want to push for it provided the General Assembly put all the burden back on us to fund the program and still say they want all the money sent to Atlanta. If we can opt out but still have to send all the money to the state, we’re making ourselves worse off than we would be.”

Edwards made earlier statements that under the former system, some defendants fell through cracks and sat in jail for months before being seen by a lawyer. Public defenders now are mandated to respond to every defendant arrested within 72 hours, he said. Hendrick, who had control over indigent defense in Colquitt County, said that Edwards’ comments were unfounded in this county, and Edwards later responded that his statements didn’t apply to Colquitt County.

Despite their opposition to the new system purported to fix something that wasn’t broken in the first place, Hendrick and McLane both agreed the problem lies in the system and not the people who are trying to make it work.

“... I certainly think that Kent and his assistants are doing the best they can do with what they have work with, so I’m certainly not criticizing them. I have no quarrel with the people involved, we just think that the program is not necessary in the Southern Circuit,” McLane said, adding he and Edwards are longtime friends and he was delighted when he took the public defender’s position.

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