Archive for Friday, October 20, 1995

STATE BOARD MAY BE FORCED TO SLASH FEES TO ATTORNEYS

October 20, 1995

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A state legal defense board will decide today how to cut 1.5 percent of its budget.

A state board may cut fees paid to private attorneys who defend indigent clients because not enough money was allocated to cover the costs.

At a meeting today, the Kansas Board of Indigent Defense Services (BIDS) will consider cutting the $50-an-hour fee paid to court-appointed attorneys from now until the end of the fiscal year in June 1996. The board anticipates the caseload will cost $1 million more than the Legislature allocated for such defense services.

The board has run into similar funding problems in the past few years. This year, they are under a state mandate to trim costs by 1.5 percent.

Local attorneys appointed to defend indigent clients say it's unfair to expect them to eat the rising costs the Legislature isn't willing to fund. They say the number of cases is rising partly because of the Legislature's passage of more criminal statues.

On behalf of the private attorneys in Douglas County who take appointed cases, Ed Collister wrote a brief but bold letter on the defenders' position.

"We can live with a 1.5 percent cut in the rates paid assigned counsel as long as comparable decreases are applied to every salary for every employee of the Board of Indigents' Defense Services as well as the budgets of all your offices," Collister wrote.

The local panel of appointed defenders and local judges also disagrees with a proposal to eliminate the indigent defense system by opening a public defenders office with two private attorneys. The board proposed the change because they said a public defender would cost the state about $200 less a case and half as much money each year.

But local officials said the savings would come at the expense of providing a good legal defense and expediting cases through the court system. Douglas County has four divisions that handle criminal cases simultaneously. Cases move through the system faster in other jurisdictions because indigent cases are spread among the almost 40 attorneys on the appointment panel.

"Their response seemed to be, 'Even though your system works, maybe you ought to change it so it works for our system with two public defenders,'" Collister said. "That's kind of like the tail wagging the dog."

BIDS representatives recently met with Douglas County judges and three attorneys from the appointment panel. It was the first time the issue had been discussed with the local judges, though the proposal had been under discussion for the past few months.

Collister, who attended the meeting, said it was unfair for the state to ask Douglas County to alter their expeditious court system to make it work for two public defenders. Administrative Judge Mike Malone said if the state added a third public defender, it would eliminate the cost-savings argument.

"We made it clear we did not believe it was a well-prepared, well-studied inquiry," Malone said.

But if BIDS and local officials don't come up with a way to cut costs, the Legislature may do it for them, said Mel Cathey, administrative counsel for BIDS.

Collister said he thought that would be a "copout." He said legislators should be willing to back up their increasing amounts of crime legislation with the money that defendants are entitled to under the Constitution.

"The Legislature doesn't want to mandate anything because they know the court system isn't their business; it's the court's business," Collister said. "There's an attitude that we make do rather than doing it right."

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