ATLANTA - Four years ago, a General Assembly besieged by lawsuits challenging Georgia's patchwork system for defending poor people charged with crimes created a uniform network of public defenders.
From the start, however, the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council has been hamstrung over funding, the very issue that prompted Gov. Sonny Perdue and legislative leaders to come up with the program in the first place.
Now, alarm over the rising costs of defending a single accused criminal, Fulton County Courthouse shooting suspect Brian Nichols, is threatening the system's already precarious support.
"The council probably feels like silly putty. They're being tugged all different directions," Sen. Michael Meyer von Bremen, D-Albany, said last week following two days of legislative hearings on indigent defense at the Capitol. "When you stretch silly putty too far, there's a hole in the middle."
Lawmakers created the statewide system in 2003 in response to lawsuits claiming that poor defendants' constitutional rights to legal representation were being violated in parts of the state.
In one infamous case, a man charged with loitering in Crisp County languished in jail for 13 months without even seeing a lawyer.
But actually funding the new network of public defenders turned into a two-year process.
After failing to put any money behind the 2003 bill, the legislature appropriated $58 million the following year, but not until the governor had called lawmakers back to Atlanta for a special session.
The money paid for a system of public defenders in 43 of Georgia's 49 judicial circuits. Officials in six single-county circuits - including the large counties of Gwinnett and Cobb - opted not to join the network.
Like the state system, some hired full-time public defenders. Others put together lists of private attorneys to take turns representing indigent defendants or hired lawyers on a contract basis.
From the start, the new system was bound to run afoul with county officials, said Kem Kimbrough, assistant general counsel for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia.
Back in 2003, an early version of the legislation had called for the state to fully fund the program. That's what had been recommended by a commission put together by the Georgia Supreme Court.
At the time, counties were spending more than $70 million a year on indigent defense, compared to just $11 million being spent by the state, Kimbrough said.
When lawmakers proved reluctant to have the state to take on such a large burden alone, then-House Speaker Terry Coleman, D-Eastman, introduced a bill that provided for the state and local governments to share the cost.
"The state never did what the Supreme Court intended for them to do with their report," Kimbrough said.
As a result, he said, counties are still spending about $60 million a year on indigent defense without the input they had when they ran their own systems, while the state's share has declined from the initial installment.
The fiscal 2009 budget request the council's staff presented last week to a joint legislative study committee was for $35 million.
The agency appears to have good reason for its self-imposed spending discipline.
Legislative leaders were concerned enough about the system's finances to have created the study committee during this year's session.
Indigent defense caught the attention of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle when the council reported a looming budget shortfall and asked for $9.6 million to cover the operation through the end of June. Cagle, the Senate's presiding officer, steered the resolution forming the panel through the upper chamber.
"The lieutenant governor is ... looking for ways to have an effective program that is the best value for taxpayer dollars," Cagle spokeswoman Jaillene Hunter said. "He wants to fully understand and review the program to find the most proper way to defend the indigent in our state."
Lawmakers ended up funding the agency's shortfall but not before expressing indignation over the escalating costs of the Nichols case, which have soared past $1.8 million.
The expensive expert witnesses and private lawyers that have been brought in to aid the public defenders representing Nichols have prompted concerns that the case could set a bad precedent.
"We certainly can't let this case be the bellwether," Sen. John Wiles, R-Marietta, a member of the study committee, warned last week. "That's a standard that will break our budget."
Nor should it, say the system's supporters.
"The Nichols case is the exception," said Sara Totonchi, public policy director for the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, which brought some of the lawsuits that led to the system's creation. "We can't let it define what our indigent defense system is going to look like."
Totonchi said she's worried about the level of support for the new indigent defense system, not only in light of the Nichols case but because many of the legislative leaders that her organization worked for years to educate about the need for a uniform network of public defenders no longer are around.
But council officials are working to reassure lawmakers that state taxpayers are going to get their money's worth from the system.
Last week, former Rep. Mack Crawford, who came on board as the council's director only a month ago, promised improvements.
For one thing, Crawford told members of the study committee, the council is developing guidelines that would require public defenders in death penalty cases to budget their costs up front, so there wouldn't be unwelcome surprises down the line.
"Given time and with your help, I think we can get some of this under control," he said.