County weighs public defender options

WARREN — Trumbull County commissioners and judges in the county’s courts are weighing their options and trying to decide how to design a new system to provide attorneys to people charged with crimes who can’t afford one of their own.

Last year, Trumbull County paid over $900,000 to the Office of the Ohio Public Defender to provide attorneys in the various courts.

The contract, expiring at the end of June, provides indigent defense counsel in all of the courts of Trumbull County, totaling approximately 6,000 cases each year, according to a letter from Tim Young, Ohio Public Defender.

The arrangement — unchanged for many years — was no longer working for either party at the prices that were being negotiated, said Jim Misocky, special projects coordinator for the county.

Trumbull County is one of only 10 counties that has a contract through the Office of the Ohio Public Defender to provide counsel for its residents, according to information on the OPD office’s website. Most counties, 40, have a system of court-appointed counsel — meaning a judge chooses from a list of attorneys, knowing which are qualified to handle what types of cases, to represent a defendant. Twenty-nine counties have a county-run public defender’s office and eight counties have contracts with nonprofit corporations for defense services, the website shows. One county has a blended system.

A proposed contract with the Office of the Ohio Public Defender would cost Trumbull County $416,164 per year, but that doesn’t mean the county would save $500,000.

The latest proposed contract would no longer cover all the courts, only courts hearing misdemeanors in Trumbull County — Warren Municipal Court, Niles Municipal Court, Girard Municipal Court, Newton Falls Municipal Court, Trumbull County Eastern District Court and Trumbull County Central District Court. The contract would cover up to 4,800 defendants.

People charged with felonies in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court and people charged through the Trumbull County Juvenile Court or Family Court would receive a court-appointed attorney — costs not covered by the latest proposed contract, even though they were included under the previous contract.

And Trumbull County hasn’t updated its reimbursement rates for attorneys since 1991, Misocky said. The county has to update the rates attorneys will be paid for handling certain types of cases. A private attorney hired to defend a person charged with murder will be paid more than one hired to defend someone charged with drug possession. The rates have to be competitive, Misocky said, or attorneys won’t be interested in participating. So the total price tag for representation in felony cases isn’t clear.

And the changes being considered come at a time when the state is adjusting the rate at which it reimburses counties.

Last year, Trumbull County contributed $900,000 — 58 percent of the total bill. The state paid the other 42 percent. But the state is likely to approve an 80 percent reimbursement rate going forward, which works out to a 70 percent effective rate for the second half of this year, Misocky said.

If the contract goes through, the $1.4 million cost will be mostly paid by the state, leaving the $416,000 bill for Trumbull County for the lower courts, plus 30 percent of the cost of the court-appointed attorneys in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court and Family Court.

But it is unclear if all of the judges will give their stamp of approval for the new direction.

Trumbull County commissioner Mauro Cantalamessa said he and Misocky have been speaking with the administrative judges of the courts and while the Common Pleas Court is on board with a court-appointed system, it is not clear if the Family Court is comfortable with the proposed system. If not, other options may be explored, he said.

David Rouzzo, a private attorney after resigning last month from the Trumbull County branch of the Office of the Ohio Public Defender, has another proposal to switch to the county-owned public defender office model. Rouzzo said the courts would rely on court-appointed attorneys while a county-run office is created. The proposal would cover all of the courts, and Rouzzo said it would save the county money.

Rouzzo’s budget proposal calls for three staff attorneys, an office administrator, a paralegal / investigator, a legal secretary and a part-time employee or intern, along with contracted attorneys for all of the courts. His proposal states the office would have a budget of $1.295 million, with the county contributing $388,590.

“This solution ensures the people of Trumbull County control the future of indigent defense locally. More importantly, it better protects those at greatest risk in our community. It attracts talent from and encourages participation in the local criminal defense bar. It utilizes existing county resources to avoid maintenance redundancy. It is affordable and it provides for quality, local representation of indigent defendants countywide,” states a letter Rouzzo penned to county commissioners.