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Assigned counsel and SB 139

Over the last couple of months, I've written a number of posts about the proposed reforms to the indigent defense system here in Cuyahoga County.  (For those of you who can't seem to get enough of my keen wit and lucid prose, click on Indigent Defense over in the bar on the right under Topics, scroll down to the post of August 8, and read up from there.)  That's not the only proposal on the subject out there, though; there's a bill in the legislature that would radically change the way indigent defense is handled in the entire state.  You can read the proposed bill here.  (No keen wit and lucid prose, trust me.)  You can read the legislative summary of the bill here.  You can read my summary, and my take on it, here.

What the bill does.  Basically, the state takes over all the payments, and the Ohio Public Defender decides how it's spent.  The OPD determines what system a county will have:  all assigned counsel, all public defender, whatever.  Without going into detail, there are some provisions of the proposal that seem to suggest that assigned counsel will be limited to cases where the public defender has a conflict, or cases where "the workload of the county public defender is of such size or complexity as to threaten the quality of representation of the client by the county public defender."  (Notably, the legislation doesn't specify who gets to make that call.  That shouldn't lead to much litigation, do you think?) 

I think uniformity is a good thing, in several respects, compensation being one of them; there's no reason why a lawyer handling a child rape case in Crawford County should get more or less than an attorney handling a child rape case in Franklin County.  And there should be some standardization of qualifications, although that needs some work, too; the present qualifications are too heavily dependent upon trial experience, and given how few cases go to trial any more, you could make a decent argument that other skills -- interpersonal skills, especially with the client, negotiating, case analysis -- are just as important to achieving the best outcome.

But there's a big difference throughout the state, even in large counties, in how an assigned counsel system would work.  In Franklin County, any court hearing that a lawyer would have -- from municipal to Supreme -- all takes place in a three-block radius.  That makes it easy to have the same lawyer represent the client from initial appearance on.  Here in Cuyahoga County you have twelve separate suburban municipal courts, and driving from one to another can take forty minutes; that kind of "vertical representation" simply isn't feasible here.

There are certain advantages to having an assigned counsel system.  It's a good way to bring young lawyers into the practice of criminal law, and it provides a broad base of quality representation.  I don't see the justification for doing away with it, and I don't see the advantage of a "one-size-fits-all" policy on indigent representation.


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