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Local public defender's office juggles more work with less resources

By Dusty Rhodes/Anyone who has ever watched Dragnet, Hill Street Blues or Law & Order can recite the Miranda warning '“ "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you."

 It's the classic line signaling that the alleged bad guy is in custody, the crime has been solved, and the credits are about to roll. For public defenders, however, that line is where the work begins: They are the attorneys appointed to represent the poor crook in cuffs.

<--break->There's a reason Hollywood scripts seldom follow the plot into the public defender's office: Providing legal representation to impoverished clients isn't glamorous. The lawyers who work in these offices are hampered by high caseloads and meager resources. Their job is to represent anyone who cannot afford an attorney and is charged with a crime that carries the potential for jail time, as well as parents who face the possibility of losing custody of their children to the state.

And in Champaign County, the office of the public defender '“ like most other departments '“ started a new fiscal year on Dec. 1 with a painful budget cut.

Previously funded at $1,087,680, the office cut 7 percent of its annual budget, down to $1,011,523 for this fiscal year. The Champaign County State's Attorney's office took a proportionately larger hit, dropping from $2,326,525 in 2009 to $2,095,395 for fiscal year 2010.

There's no rule that spells out how poor a defendant must be to qualify for the services of a public defender; in each case, the judge reviews a defendant's financial affidavit to decide. Tom Betz, a Champaign County Board member and director of student legal services at University of Illinois, said there's good reason for this broad definition.

"A huge portion of the population cannot afford counsel," he said. "You don't have to live in poverty to not afford counsel; you can be middle class. If you're charged with a felony, even a relatively minor felony, the fee [for a private attorney] can begin at $5,000."

This right to free counsel is one of the ideals that sets the U.S. apart from most other countries, according to Jeff Davis, an attorney who also teaches world studies and advanced placement U.S. history at Urbana High School.

"It's quite a novel idea around the world, and relatively recent here in the U.S.," he said.

Davis, who worked in the Champaign County public defender's office for several years during the 1990s, discovered how crucial this right was when he found himself sitting through arraignments in Courtroom F every afternoon at 1:30. He subconsciously hoped that defendants would request a public defender, even though he knew it would increase his caseload.

"If they were on the fence, I would ask them to just give me a chance," he said. "If jail's a possibility, everybody needs an attorney. That's the only way to safely navigate the judicial system."

In the Champaign County Courthouse, the public defender's office is handily situated near the records department, the bathrooms and the vending machines. Everything from traffic tickets to homicides comes through this office. The 14 staff attorneys are generally assigned to particular dockets '“ some focus on felonies, a few on misdemeanors, a few on juvenile delinquency, one on child abuse and neglect. Randall Rosenbaum, the chief public defender, handles some of the felonies and most of the mental commitment cases. The newest lawyer is usually the one assigned to handle the bulk of the traffic tickets, which come in at the rate of almost 200 per month.

Public defenders don't handle civil cases; Land of Lincoln Legal Aid can help with divorces, rental disputes, orders of protection and other civil matters.

 Rosenbaum said the Champaign County caseload is high, even compared to other public defender offices. Nearby McLean County, for example, has a smaller, wealthier population, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Yet the McLean County public defender's office has the same number of staff attorneys, plus six contract attorneys and several other support staff members '“ a paralegal, a social worker, and a full-time investigator '“ that Champaign County does not have. Rosenbaum, who worked as an assistant public defender in New York City in the early 1990s, said the Champaign County caseload is higher than what he experienced in New York.

"My memory is that my felony caseload might have been 25 per month, and now most of my felony attorneys have at least 50," he said.

That caseload has recently increased. The budget cuts that took effect in December eliminated one of the 14 staff attorneys.

These cuts are part of a countywide belt-tightening. Last summer, the county board told each department to reduce its budget by 6 percent from commodities and services; a few months later, County Administrator Deb Busey asked larger departments, such as the State's Attorney's office, to make even deeper cuts. State's Attorney Julia Rietz said her office of approximately 40 full-time employees is losing one attorney, two secretaries, one paralegal, and decreasing hours for the office manager and two victim advocates, and has trimmed its budget for training, books and subscriptions, and witness fees and expenses.

"The cuts will make it difficult for all of the remaining staff, who are also going without any pay increases, cost of living or otherwise, this year. Unfortunately, crime does not stop, and may even increase, in times of economic downturn, so the work does not stop simply because our resources have decreased. But we have a very dedicated staff, and we will all pitch in to get the work done on behalf of our constituents," Rietz said.

In the already-slim public defender's office, budget cuts meant slashing dues, training, expert witnesses, pencils '“ everything Rosenbaum could think of. The biggest portion of his services budget went to a contract for a part-time investigator, retired Illinois State Police Lieutenant Michale Callahan, who was on a $20,000 annual retainer to provide any needed research needed. Under the newly trimmed budget, Rosenbaum has allotted only $7,000 for an investigator, and that amount will be doled out on a per-hour basis to Mike Sturgeon, another retired ISP officer.

Callahan said his main duties were to track down potentially favorable witnesses or check out a client's alibi. "I think part of my job was to look at both sides of the story and try to analyze what's fact and what's not,' he said.

When alibis don't check out, or witnesses don't prove as helpful as promised, an investigator's efforts often just helped the public defender persuade a client to plead guilty. Other times, an investigator can prove what authorities have refused to believe."

"When you're taking action on the less fortunate, there's nobody there to complain about it, and if there is, they have no voice,' Sturgeon said.

Callahan recalls a domestic violence case in which the man was also charged with home invasion '“ a Class X felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison. When Callahan interviewed the female victim, she told him that the man was her boyfriend, that they had lived together for seven years, and that she had initiated the scuffle because she thought he had cheated on her. Callahan went to their landlord and got a copy of the lease, which had the man's name on it. That information was enough to get the felony charge dropped.

"It was just a simple matter of doing something that had never been done before,' he said.

In neighboring McLean County, Chief Public Defender Amy Davis said having an investigator on staff is "absolutely imperative' and describes her investigator '“ whose annual salary is $45,000 '“  "the best employee in the office.'

"I just had a murder case dismissed [in December], and it's largely due to the work she's done,' Davis said. "She's just gifted. There's tons and tons of cases that she has gotten dismissed.'

Davis also has a private investigator on retainer who works with her staff investigator.

Besides the investigators, the McLean county public defenders office has a paralegal, five secretaries, two intake screeners, as well as a full-time social worker, paid $38,000 a year, who helps clients obtain counseling, housing, job training, federal benefits '“ whatever they need.

Davis was able to add these positions '“ the investigator, the social worker, and the two intake screeners '“ by first obtaining federal Bureau of Justice Assistance grants.

"I applied for grants because there was no way the county was going to pay for those. They [the employees] justified themselves, and now the county has adopted them,' she said. Their services are now seen not as costs, but as economic efficiencies.

"The whole goal here is to get people out of the system as fast as possible,' Davis said.

The Champaign County public defender's office will lose more than just the part-time investigator. In the fall, after all departments cut their budgets by 6 percent, the County Board asked for another 1.5 percent reduction. "That's when I was essentially told I had to cut personnel," Rosenbaum said.

He has avoided having to actually lay off a lawyer only because staff attorney George Vargas was activated in February for a full year of military duty.

"When he comes back, if the budget isn't looking any better, I very well may have to fire an attorney then,' Rosenbaum said. 

Vargas's departure made the staff's already-high caseloads even higher. Last summer, the public defender's office opened 600 to 774 cases per month, and closed 614 to 823 during those same months, according to county records. Felonies accounted for 160 to 220 of the new cases in each of those months, and Vargas '“ one of six full-time felony public defenders '“ handled as many as 40 felony cases per month.

Vargas did more than just felonies, however. He represented all Spanish-speaking clients, whether they're charged with misdemeanors, traffic violations, or juvenile delinquency. "In any given month, he may well have 75 to 100 Spanish-speakers on top of his 40 or 50 felony people,' Rosenbaum said. Champaign County's hiring freeze means that Rosenbaum cannot hire anyone to replace Vargas while he's gone.

By Dusty Rhodes/CU- Citizen Access

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.