State revenue shortfalls are forcing the
district's public defender to close his office in Madisonville and is
threatening to cut the number of attorneys who represent indigent clients.
Economic woes have also prompted Public Defender
Richard Hughes to explore new funding mechanisms, such as requesting counties
in the district to tack on a new court fee to each person who is found guilty
of a crime.
"I'm aware the downturn in the economy has affected
not just my office, but everybody else. But I do have concern about the
specific impact on my office and my clients," said Hughes, who is elected to
run the public defender system in the 10th Judicial District of McMinn, Monroe,
Polk and Bradley counties.
"It's going to have to affect the quality of
representation we provide," he said.
Hughes said he will likely be forced to cut
$87,000 from his budget.
That will force the closure of the Madisonville
office on U.S. Highway 411, which serves clients in McMinn and Monroe counties.
That will leave Hughes with only one office in Cleveland.
"My great concern with losing the Madisonville
office is that the people my office represents in McMinn and Monroe counties
won't have access to the attorneys like they do," Hughes said. "It will be
difficult for the people this office serves in McMinn and Monroe counties to
travel to Cleveland, and some won't be able to do it."
Hughes expects the Madisonville office to be
shuttered in July. He said attorneys in his office will attempt to meet clients
at courthouses after the closure.
Hughes fears if budget cuts continue as the
economy weakens, he will have to cut attorneys from his staff. Public
defenders are already being stripped of travel reimbursement as part of this
round of budget cuts, Hughes said.
There are three full-time public defenders and a
part-time attorney in each of Hughes' offices. The public defenders represent
clients who can't afford to pay for a private attorney to represent them in
The public defenders work in juvenile, general
session and criminal courts. The 10th Judicial District Public Defender's
Office represented nearly 4,500 clients last year.
Hughes said one solution to the budget crisis is
forcing people in the court system to pay more.
He will propose soon to the four county
governments in the district a plan to levy a new fee against anyone who pleads
guilty to a crime, whether it's a misdemeanor or felony.
Hughes said the fee would cost $12.50 per guilty
charge and would be assessed to all litigants, regardless if they use the
public defenders service. Court clerks would share the added revenue with the
public defender for help administrating the fee.
Hughes said he will also suggest judges in the
district begin deeming more clients as "partially indigent" and require them to
pay more for the public defender service. All clients pay the public
defender between $50 and $200 for an administration fee, but Hughes said some
clients may have the income to pay more.
"I've resisted this because as a public defender I
know court costs are expenses for my clients, but we are now at a point where
the people utilizing the system should help support it," Hughes said. "The time
has come that I am going to have to purse that."