Indigent defense changes pass through Senate

ATLANTA - Georgia's indigent defense system would get both a funding boost and additional spending controls under legislation passed by the Senate Thursday.

The changes to a statewide network of public defenders are aimed at preserving a statewide network of public defenders the General Assembly created to replace a patchwork of local indigent defense operations that was achieving mixed results.

"A good competent lawyer on the front end saves us money on the back end when it comes to appeals," said Sen. John Wiles, R-Marietta, who served last year on a legislative study committee on the issue.

One of the new system's key goals was to reduce what counties were spending on indigent defense while stepping up the state's share of the funding.

Instead, both the state and local commitments to defending poor criminal suspects have risen steadily.

The growing budgets stem partly from the Brian Nichols case. Three years after the Fulton County Courthouse shootings, the tab for defending the alleged gunman has reached nearly $2 million.

The legislation, which originated in the House, would bring in additional revenue by raising the application fee for suspects seeking to qualify as indigent defendants from $50 to $100.

It would curb the system's costs by restricting income eligibility for the program to 100 percent of the federal poverty level, down from the current 125 percent.

Senators amended the House version of the bill by easing the current requirement that an indigent defendant meet with a lawyer no more than 72 hours after being taken into custody.

Under the Senate bill, that would be increased to five business days. Also, suspects would have to ask for a lawyer.

Sen. Seth Harp, R-Midland, who led an unsuccessful effort to restore the 72-hour limit, argued that lengthening the legal waiting period for meeting with a lawyer would give convicted defendants an additional avenue to appeal.

"You give another arrow in the quiver to the defense bar to use this," he said. "Why give them the opportunity?"

But Senate Majority Whip Mitch Seabaugh, R-Sharpsburg, said the additional time would give court officials longer to determine whether a defendant seeking indigent status is qualified, potentially saving the system money.

"We're taking nothing away from an individual who may be entitled to services," he said.

After narrowly defeating Harp's amendment, the Senate passed the bill 38-11.

It now goes back to the House for a vote on the changes made by the Senate.