Judges look at reducing lawyer costs

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 7, 2007

NATCHEZ — Providing defense attorneys for defendants who cannot afford their own is becoming quite costly for Adams County.

In 2006 Adams County spent $125,000 on indigent defendants, in 2007 that figure jumped to $182,000.

But Circuit Court judges Forrest Johnson and Lillie Sanders think they may have a way to bring these costs back down.

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At its essence the plan would contract defense lawyers at a yearly fixed rate.

As of now the court uses a list of local attorneys that have signed up to work as indigent defenders.

These lawyers are paid by the county.

These attorneys also work on a fluctuating pay scale that varies according to the type of case and time spent on the case.

The standard rate is normally around $500 for a defense attorney, Johnson said.

But if the case is a capital case or if the case goes into a lengthy trial the county funded lawyers can run up a hefty bill.

Johnson said each year his office handles more cases and the county has to pay more money.

“We can’t control the fees because we don’t know how many cases we’ll have,” he said.

And, Johnson said, since all defendants are to be provided with council, by law the county is opening itself up for unknown costs.

Between 2006-2007 Adams County spent $57,000 more on indigent defendants.

Under Johnson and Sanders’ newly proposed plan the county would acquire a team of lawyers that would essentially be on retainer for a fixed price.

This would allow judges to try an infinite number of cases with out fear of running up enormous legal bills.

In theory a team of three or four lawyers would serve as indigent defenders for Adams County for a predetermined sum.

The lawyers would then divide the money amongs themselves.

Johnson said many counties in Mississippi, including Pike and Lincoln are already successfully using similar programs.

In fact, Johnson said, Adams County is one of only a few counties that still hires defense attorney on a per case basis.

On Nov. 5, Sanders and Johnson presented their idea to the Adams County Board of Supervisors and received positive feedback.

President of the Adams County Board of Supervisors Darryl Grennell asked the team to prepare a formal proposal of their plan for the board’s review.

“This could mean a major savings for the county,” Grennell said.

Grennell also said similar plans have been presented to the board in the past, but for unknown reasons, have never made it as far as the formal proposal stage.