Politics

There will be more court-appointed attorneys available to represent poor people in court under Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed budget.

In his proposal, Bevin set aside funds to add 44 lawyers to the Department of Public Advocacy’s ranks of 333 public defenders.

Ed Monahan, the state’s chief public defender, said the move would help the agency reduce caseloads for its overworked advocates.

“We’re very fortunate that this governor has recognized that if we had additional capacity, that it would not only deal with the unethical levels of cases we have, but it will be one of the best business investments that can be made when you look at this criminal justice system,” Monahan said during a presentation to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Justice and the Judiciary on Thursday.

Monahan said the move is a step in the right direction, but the agency will still be subject to other reductions if Bevin’s proposal to cut most state agencies by 4.5 percent this year and 9 percent for the next two years is approved by the General Assembly.

Kentucky public defenders represent clients who can’t afford to hire a lawyer. They handled about 153,000 cases in 2015, up from 137,000 in 2006.

Monahan said public defenders aren’t able to adequately represent clients now because they’re so overworked.

“You know, there are people wrongly charged, there are people overcharged, there are people who get disproportionate sentences, and we’re the protection against that,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Justice has begun throwing its weight behind lawsuits where plaintiffs allege they have been effectively denied right to an attorney because of unprepared public defenders.

In 2014, the DOJ filed a statement of interest in such a case in New York, leading the state to settle the lawsuit and devote additional resources to indigent defense.

State Rep. Brent Yonts, a Democrat from Greenville, said the additional funding would help Kentucky’s public defenders be better prepared in court.

“Without it, you’re forcing your attorneys who go out and defend people each day literally to commit malpractice,” Yonts said.

Despite the boost to the ranks of public defenders, the attorneys’ average salary of $38,770 will likely remain unchanged.

Monahan said compensation for public defenders is too low, leading to “brain drain.” About 11 percent of public defenders in the state move to new jobs every year.

“If we can reduce their case loads and compensate them more to hold onto them, that is a way for us to have a less-costly system,” Monahan said.

Bevin’s proposed budget also says the Department for Public Advocacy can alter its compensatory time policy if budget pressures warrant doing so.

State workers who accumulate the maximum 240 hours of comp time are paid 50 hours to reduce the stockpile. Under Bevin’s proposal, the hours would be converted to sick leave.

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