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Published: Thursday, 7/17/2003

Court asks for more money for attorneys

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

MONROE - Some Monroe County Commissioners last week pitched fits over a request from 1st District Court for $120,000 to pay for court-appointed attorneys to represent indigent clients.

But a study of the money spent on lawyers in the county's court system shows that the average cost per case actually decreased in 2002, which was the 11th straight year without a per-hour pay increase for the attorneys who do such work.

“I'm mad that we have to pay so much money to keep on convicting all these criminals over and over again,” said county commissioner David Scott, who voted against the additional appropriation request.

The county budgeted only $125,000 for attorney's fees in the district court for all of 2003, even though it spent $160,000 on it the previous year.

District Court officials said that, without the immediate infusion of cash from the county's $600,000 contingency fund, it would not be able to pay its court-appointed attorney bills this month.

Members of the Monroe County Bar Association who agree to accept court appointments to represent the interests of indigent clients have been paid $52 an hour for their work since 1991.

Last year, the county paid out $522,967.69 for court-appointed attorneys to process 1,575 cases in district, circuit, and family courtrooms, just a slight increase over the $521,413.39 it paid in 2001 for their services in 1,363 cases.

Mr. Scott railed that taxpayers, as the victims of crime, had to pay not only to try suspected criminals and to incarcerate them, but also to represent their interests by hiring defense attorneys.

“We keep going over our budgeted amount for attorney fees. I don't think we should spend 50 cents.

``I think we should cut the police [budget] in half and the court [budget] in half, and let people deal with things in their own way like they used to,” Mr. Scott said.

A report presented to commissioners each year by Monroe County Clerk Gerri Allen shows that the average cost per case for court-appointed attorneys in all of the county's courtrooms fell in 2002 by just over 13 percent, from $382.55 to $332.04, and has fallen almost 20 percent from pay rates in 2000.

If the pay rates for attorneys had kept up with inflation, their $52-per-hour pay rate in 1991 would be $68.68 today, and the county would have paid nearly $168,000 more last year for their services.

In real dollars that would have been adjusted for inflation, however, the pay of local court-appointed attorneys has fallen since 1991 to just over $39 an hour.

Although the county has been tightening its financial belt for the last several years, its departments have tried to make up some revenue shortfalls from the state through increased fees and other savings.

In the district court, for instance, the county's three judges agreed to raise their schedule of fines and fees for traffic and other violations and will generate an additional $200,000 in income for county coffers this year, Chief District Court Judge Jack Vitale said.

The lower court is also working to resolve more cases on its own, without binding them over into the Circuit Court where felonies are adjudicated.

Doing so limits the duplication of attorney's fees and other court costs associated with those cases and saves the county money, Judge Vitale said.

The Monroe County First District Court resolved 243 felony cases without turning them over to the Circuit Court in 2002.

Through June 30 of this year, the District Court had resolved 153 such cases, putting it on a pace to keep more than 300 cases out of the upper court, an increase of more than 25 percent.

“Even though we're handling more felony cases, it appears that in District Court there are some savings there that you're not seeing,” Judge Vitale said.

If there is one area where county officials do say they need to improve, it is collections.

Of the more than $500,000 paid for court-appointed attorneys in 2002 in Circuit and District court, the county collected back just $99,654 from those who benefited from the service.

Mrs. Allen said her office sends a letter to each person who uses the court-appointed attorney system demanding that they reimburse the county once their case has been adjudicated.

If people pay, even as little as $5 or $10 a week, her office will take the money and not turn their case over to a local collection agency.



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