BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- Jefferson County courts will switch to a public defender system as part of a statewide effort to control the spiraling cost of providing lawyers for criminal defendants unable to afford counsel, officials said.
The new public defender's office will replace the current system of judges appointing lawyers for indigent defendants, said Circuit Judge Scott Vowell, the county's presiding judge.
"We feel this will improve legal services for the indigent at a reasonable cost to the taxpayers," Vowell said.
Birmingham division court officials, including a five-member Indigent Defense Advisory Board created under a 2011 law, hope to hire the head defender with the aid of a screening committee by Oct. 1. That person will hire the staff.
Vowell gave no timetable for the switch, saying establishing the office in the 2121 Building could take months.
"It's essentially like setting up a large law firm," Vowell said.
Officials estimated the Birmingham division public defender's office will have 40 lawyers and support staff. The District Attorney's Office in the Birmingham division has 43 lawyers and about 50 support staff.
The Bessemer Cutoff has a separate committee exploring a public-defender system, but has made no decision, Vowell said.
In Jefferson County Family Court, the Legal Aid Society of Birmingham, which is affiliated with the Birmingham Bar Association, will continue to be the primary source of indigent defense representation.
Judges in Birmingham also will continue to appoint lawyers for indigent capital defendants.
Savings are hoped for
Court officials hope the switch to a public defender system will contain costs and make budget projections more reliable.
In Jefferson County's Birmingham division, the state spent $6.8 million on indigent defense in 2002, but the figure rose to $12.5 million in 2011. State officials project the public defender's office will shave $3.5 million off that price tag.
The state spent $65.3 million on indigent defense in the 2011 budget year, a 73 percent increase over the 2002 budget year, according to figures from the state Office of Indigent Defense Services.
Ricky McKinney, the state director of indigent defense, said the appointment system was inefficient and costly, in part, because the state paid lawyers an hourly rate for overhead expense, in addition to hourly rates for in-court and out-of-court work. A 2011 state law eliminated the overhead reimbursement.
"The overhead was the thing that caused the appointed cases to be relatively expensive," McKinney said. Projected savings for state indigent defense costs is $19 million to $20 million.
The move to a public defender's office is not popular among many criminal defense lawyers who work in the Birmingham division, and have relied on appointments in Circuit and District courts to make a living.
Nearly 20,000 criminal cases were filed last year in the Birmingham division, 13,982 in District Court and 5,554 in Circuit Court, according to state statistics.
Everett Wess, a member of the local Indigent Defense Advisory Committee and president of the Greater Birmingham Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said he thinks the appointment system worked fine, and defendants had quality representation.
"We have resolved a lot of cases before trial, and obtained lesser verdicts and not guilty verdicts," Wess said. "We have a chance to get to know the defendant, to understand the facts and factors underlying the situation. "
Defense lawyers also are concerned that caseloads would become excessive in the public defender's office, reducing the effectiveness of representation, Wess said. In the appointed system, lawyers can limit the number of cases they take.
"There are a lot of unknowns," Wess said. "Some PD systems work fine here in Alabama. Then there are some that are disastrous here in Alabama. My concern is the client and the quality of representation."
Birmingham criminal defense lawyers still will have work after the public defender office opens, McKinney said. Some defendants will hire lawyers. Some cases with multiple defendants will require appointed counsel in addition to public defenders, he said.
"We don't want to see a decrease in the quality of representation," McKinney said. "But we do want to see a decrease in the cost."