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Changes proposed for county’s public defenders

NATCHEZ — Adams County Circuit Judges are proposing changes to the public defense system that would, in retrospect, change the way public defense attorneys are paid after two attorneys demanded equal pay that is in line with what their colleagues make.

During a Thursday meeting of the Adams County Board of Supervisors, Adams County Circuit Judge Lille B. Sanders proposed a $300,000 annual budget for a public defenders office — using the funds currently allocated for paying public defenders for their services in circuit court cases and lunacy hearings.

The proposed office would also cut the total number of public defenders serving in Adams County nearly in half, from nine attorneys to five.

The office would be managed by one public defender appointed by Sanders, who is the senior Circuit Court Judge. The public defender would then appoint four assistant public defenders, Sanders said.

The $300,000 budget includes a $44,700 salary for the primary public defender and $32,000 for assistant public defenders, $11,000 for a secretary with additional work benefits for each.

Room had also been left in the budget for leasing office space and purchasing supplies.

Supervisors took the proposal under advisement without action.

“This is something that has been in the works for months,” Sanders said after Thursday’s meeting. “We would get more bang for our buck instead of having to run down nine attorneys and sign orders.”

Prior two Sanders’ presentation Thursday, two public defenders recently appeared before the Board of Supervisors demanding equal pay as other public defenders who were issued an $800 per month raise via court order by Sanders.

Lawyers Lydia Blackmon and Aisha Sanders were the only ones omitted from the raise because they were related to Lillie B. Sanders, and consequentially could not receive a raise without a separate order from Blackwell — who refused to sign an order for any raises.

The salaries in Sanders’ proposal would slightly cut the pay for the public defenders in exchange for benefits they didn’t have previously and more work required from them, Adams County Attorney Scott Slover said during Thursday’s meeting.

“They might get paid a little less but would be in a better position,” he said.

Thursday’s meeting Circuit Court Judge Debra Blackwell said she too has two different proposals for the Board of Supervisors and had agreed that the public defense system was in need of reformation but declined to disclose information regarding those proposals as of Thursday afternoon.

“Since I took office (December 2018) it has been my goal to restructure the public defenders’ system,” Blackwell said. “(Sanders) and I have had general discussions about our different ideas about how to do it. … We’ve never talked figures. … I want to change the public defenders system and I have two proposals. I’m going to draft those and send them to the board.”

It would be up to the Adams County Board of Supervisors to approve or reject the proposals, Sanders said.

In other matters during Thursday’s meeting, the board discussed a potential Crises Stabilization Unit at the doctor’s pavilion near the former Community Hospital using an $800,000 grant awarded to Southwest Mississippi Mental Health. The facility would provide long-term psychiatric care to at least eight patients.

The Democrat will write more about this in a future edition.

Slover said the grant fell about $150,000 short of the amount needed.  The board took no action pertaining to the facility during Thursday’s meeting.