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The Advocate and Democrat.

Public defender's office to close

Published: 6:38 PM, 01/09/2009 Last updated: 12:10 PM, 04/01/2009

Source: The Monroe County Advocate

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 court. 

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."


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