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Indigent defense funding revisited

Spending tax dollars to defend poor people accused of committing crimes has never been a favorite cause among Georgia lawmakers.

In fact, the General Assembly was so reluctant to create a statewide network of public defenders several years ago it took two years to accomplish.

Facing lawsuits challenging a mishmash of local indigent defense efforts that were adequate in some counties and woeful in others, the Legislature created the statewide system in 2003 but didn't fund it.

Lawmakers put up the money the following year only after Gov. Sonny Perdue called them into special session to plug a $58 million hole that opened in the state budget when they failed to pass a bill funding the program during the 2004 regular session.

Now, indigent defense is a hot topic again under the Gold Dome, thanks to a shortfall plaguing the agency that oversees the system and the hugely expensive Brian Nichols murder case.

The Georgia Public Defenders Standards Council is asking for $9.6 million to stay afloat through the end of the current fiscal year June 30.

The bill for defending Nichols, accused of gunning down a judge, court reporter, sheriff's deputy and U.S. Customs agent two years ago, has shot past the $1 million mark. Reacting to those soaring legal expenses, the council has reduced the hourly fees it is paying lawyers in other death penalty cases.

The agency's budget crunch prompted two Republican senators last month to introduce a flurry of bills designed to tighten up on the system's costs.

Three of those bills would allow counties more involvement in the council, which would give local officials greater say over how the system spends its money. Another would shift the agency from the judicial branch to the executive, which would give the governor more control over its purse strings.

A fifth measure would create a joint House-Senate study committee to evaluate the indigent defense system.

"I am concerned about the money being spent on this program,'' said Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who presides over the Senate and plays a key role in the flow of legislation.

"The Nichols case is an example of providing a world-class defense with public dollars. ... If we're not careful, indigent will receive a better defense than private pay ... That was never the intent of the Legislature.''

But the worst thing the Legislature could do is overreact to the Nichols case and abandon the statewide system, said former state Rep. Tom Bordeaux. The Savannah Democrat, a lawyer, was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee when the system was created.

"I think it's outrageous that (Nichols) is getting a $1 million defense,'' Bordeaux said. "I don't think the Constitution requires that. I don't think any system can afford that.

"(But) you've got to have a system where poor people are given lawyers. If you don't, you get sued - justifiably - and taxpayers would have to pay for something that is indefensible.''

Bordeaux seldom saw eye to eye with House Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, when the two served together in the Legislature.

But Richardson, too, urged caution on any attempt to reverse the Legislature's commitment to a statewide indigent defense network.

Last week, he said the House version of the midyear budget will include the money the council requested.

"I'm not proposing that we just cut and run,'' said Richardson, who also is a lawyer. "(We) need to have an adequate defense for people accused of crime, but not an extravagant defense.''

While Cagle was noncommittal on whether the Senate would go along with the House on the $9.6 million the council is seeking, he and Richardson are on the same page when it comes to the need for a study committee.

"I think we need to do a complete study, gather the facts and make an intelligent decision,'' the lieutenant governor said.

"We're going to fund it this year ... look at it over the summer and try to rein in some of the costs,'' Richardson added. "I think we can put some more predictability in certain areas.''

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@graypub.com.

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