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Commissioners approve public defender agreement

WARREN — Trumbull County commissioners in a 2-to-1 vote on Wednesday approved a $282,444 yearlong contract with the Ohio Public Defender’s Office.

This is the county’s share of a larger budget that will increase the local office’s staff by five people and also will add four new contractors in municipal courts to handle a rising number of criminal cases.

Commissioners Frank Fuda and Mauro Cantalamessa voted to approve the new contract, based on an expected 90 percent reimbursement from the state, which shares the cost of indigent services with the county. Last year, the state reimbursed 100 percent of the cost, but the amount fluctuates based on the state budget, Joseph Medici, deputy director of the Ohio Defender’s Trial Services Division, said.

The Trumbull County Public Defender’s Office since last year has provided indigent representation to the common pleas and juvenile courts. The county previously used a hybrid system that allowed judges to appoint attorneys to represent indigent defendants.

Medici and Laura Berzonski, director of the public defender’s Trumbull County office, told commissioners the county historically has had between 900 and 1,000 felony and probation cases per year, and criminal case numbers are on the rise in Trumbull County and in almost all of the other counties in the state.

The Trumbull County Ohio Public Defender’s Office currently has four felony lawyers.

“I think in a couple cases we’ve been asking a little too much of our felony team,” Medici said, later adding he knows they have been working overtime, sometimes unclaimed.

OPPOSITION

Commissioner Niki Frenchko voted against the contract, citing the increased cost and uncertainties regarding the amount of reimbursement from the state and the anticipated number of cases.

Earlier in the meeting Frenchko also pointed out while she understands the desire for increased staff, “there has been no untimely filing” in the office and that “everyone has been able to get the services they need” with the current workforce.

Berzonski said the attorneys are “extremely overloaded with cases.” She added the office wants to make sure clients have the option of going to trial if that is what they want — but trials involve many, many hours of work.

In 2021, 1,106 criminal cases were filed in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court, according to online records. On an average court day, more than half of the criminal cases are handled by public defenders. Judge Ronald J. Rice today will see 23 court cases, 14 of which will be handled by public defenders, his court docket shows.

Ohio Laws and Administrative Rules set the standard caseload for one attorney at 150 felonies per year. If the current four felony lawyers handle 900 cases in a year, each goes well over the benchmark.

STAFFING

The Trumbull office currently has eight attorneys — the four felony attorneys, one of whom is also a supervisor; one juvenile defense attorney; two attorneys who work in the municipal courts; and Berzonski — as well as two investigators, four support staff members and 13 contract attorneys.

With the approval of the contract, the office plans to hire five new staff members: two felony attorneys, two support staff members and one supervising attorney. A budget proposal lists the expected salaries for the new attorneys at $65,643, the support staff at $40,362, and the supervisor at $72,177. With benefits, the five new positions represent an increase of more than $658,000 in payroll costs.

New contractors in the Warren, Newton Falls and Girard municipal courts and a contractor in Niles focused on video arraignments together represent another roughly $130,000.

Berzonski said she hopes to have the new positions posted within about 30 days of the contract going into effect on July 1, she said.

Staff writer Guy Vogrin contributed to this story.

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