House approves fledgling indigent defense reforms

ATLANTA - The House overwhelmingly approved legislation Tuesday aimed at preserving Georgia's fledgling indigent defense system by reining in costs.

"This is a program that is worth saving," Rep. David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, the bill's chief sponsor, told his legislative colleagues. "But if we are to save it, it must be changed."

Lawmakers approved the statewide network of public defenders in 2003 to replace a hodgepodge of local systems that had generated lawsuits charging some judicial circuits with failing to provide an adequate defense for indigent suspects.

A year later, the legislature funded the program, and the system was launched at the beginning of 2005.

Costs quickly mounted to the point that by this year, the system's budget had grown to $107 million, double what the state and counties combined were spending on indigent defense just eight years ago.

To make matters worse, the system drew a ream of negative publicity over the Brian Nichols case. Although the alleged Fulton County Courthouse gunman has yet to go to trial three years after the multiple murders, the tab for defending him has hit nearly $2 million.

The legislation, which passed 141-21 and now heads to the Senate, is designed to reduce state taxpayers' burden for defending poor people accused of crime by shifting more of the costs to counties and to the defendants themselves.

Under the legislation, the state would cover the entire bill for only the first $150,000 of the cost of a death penalty case. Beyond that, counties would have to pick up part of the tab.

Also, the measure changes the income-eligibility limit to qualify for a public defender from 125 percent of the federal poverty level down to 100 percent of the poverty limit.

The tighter income limit drew the most complaints during Tuesday's debate on the bill.

Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, D-Decatur, said it would mean more poor defendants going to court without a lawyer.

"Under this bill, someone who makes $12,000 a year - $1,000 a month - is expected to spend more than their monthly income to hire counsel to represent them," she said.

But Ralston, who co-chaired a legislative study committee that examined the indigent defense system last year, said steps had to be taken to bring the state's costs under control.

"We have limited and finite resources, as opposed to unlimited and infinite resources," he said.

Another provision in the bill aimed specifically at the Nichols case would prohibit senior judges, who are not elected, from presiding over death penalty cases.

Critics of the way the Nichols case has been handled have argued that the senior judge originally appointed to preside allowed the costs to escalate because he was not accountable to voters.