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County signs legal defense contract

WARREN — Trumbull County has contracted with the Ohio Public Defender’s Office to provide more criminal defense services for people who can’t afford to pay for their own defense.

And because the state is increasing the percentage of money it reimburses counties for providing indigent defense services, even though the office will provide more services, it will cost less locally.

The state is reimbursing the county 96 percent of the cost to provide services to the county’s municipal courts for misdemeanor cases, the Trumbull County Common Pleas Court for felony cases, in the juvenile system and with eligible appeals.

The contract that runs from July through June 2022 will cost the county $82,556.

In the 2020-21 contract, the county paid the office $422,572 for a year’s worth of services covering misdemeanor cases, with the state pitching in 70 percent. The office did not cover the juvenile court, the common pleas court or appeals, said Elizabeth Miller, assistant director of the Ohio Public Defender’s Office.

In the 2019-20 contract, the state offered 70 percent reimbursement, and the county paid $416,164. In 2018-19, the state reimbursed for 42 percent of the contract, leaving the county to pay $920,000.

The rate of reimbursement from the state has varied through the years. It was at around 25 percent between 2004 and 2017, Miller said.

The courts used an appointment system to cover the cases not included in the contract in previous years, so judges would select attorneys for those that qualified, Miller said.

There are still some cases that won’t be covered in the contract, like capital murder cases. Judges will appoint attorneys in that situation, which could include the public defender’s office if a judge selects the office, Miller said.

The office will use the eight staff members it already has in Trumbull County, will keep the 13 contractors it used previously for municipal court work and add six new staff members, Miller said.

“Statistics show public defender offices provide better representation and better outcomes,” Miller said. “We have a team, supervision and opportunities for collaboration. We do national training; there are a lot of things we do. We are passionate about our work and able to provide wonderful representation to folks, achieving better outcomes.”

Because of the state reimbursement, the program is worth about $2 million.

The county had considered a proposal for a county public defender’s office from a defense attorney and former employee of the public defender’s office, David Rouzzo. Rouzzo proposed a staff of nine and a $1.3 million contract. There were concerns about whether his proposal would qualify for state reimbursement, though Rouzzo said it was possible with a tweak in employee classification.

rfox@tribtoday.com

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