Politics

Gov. Matt Bevin has reorganized the state’s agency for public defenders — attorneys who represent those charged with crimes who can’t afford legal representation.

The realignment of the Department for Public Advocacy creates three new trial offices by shifting employees and resources from existing offices in order to reduce travel time for public defenders.

Kentucky Public Advocate Ed Monahan says the revamp will make the agency more efficient in the face of mounting caseloads.

“When you think about it, our most expensive resource is the salaries of our attorneys,” says Monahan, the state’s chief public defender. “The more time we have them in a car driving somewhere, the less efficient we can be and the fewer cases they can handle.”

Public defenders handled 2.9 percent more cases in the 2016 fiscal year compared to the year before with trial attorneys handling about 460 new cases on average, according to the DPA.

The realignment brings the number of public defender offices in the state up to 36. Monahan says by 2020 he wants there to be just as many public defender offices in the state as commonwealth’s attorney offices — 57.

The reorganization doesn’t create any positions for new personnel, but will instead shift some employees to new locations.

The three new trial offices will be located in Princeton, Shelbyville and Georgetown, and handle cases that would have been assigned to existing offices in the area.

Brandi Jones, directing attorney for the Hopkinsville trial office, says that the creation of the Princeton office will make it easier for public defenders in her office who have to travel far to represent clients.

“Taking away a 45 minute trip to go to see your client or to meet with a client or just to go to court is definitely going to improve the level and quality of representation,” Jones says.

All six staff positions at the Princeton office will be relocated from Hopkinsville.

The DPA has also been struggling with the high turnover among public defenders, with about 11 percent of the agency’s attorneys quitting or moving on to new jobs during the last fiscal year.

Jones says she hopes the realignment will help keep more public defenders in the job.

“If you take one less stressor — and that being travel time — I think that’s going to lead to a better environment which is going to promote stability,” she says.

Earlier this year, Bevin proposed setting aside funds to hire 44 attorneys to the agency’s ranks of 333 public defenders.

The proposal didn’t make it into the final budget signed off by the governor and legislature but the DPA was excluded from nearly across-the-board 9 percent spending cuts over the next two years.

According to Bevin’s executive order, the cost of creating the new offices will be offset by the decrease in time and reimbursements spent on traveling to faraway courts and jails.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.