A 15-year project to establish a full-time public defender system for the Commonwealth of Kentucky culminated on Monday with the addition of a Public Advocacy Office in Barren and Metcalfe counties, the only two remaining counties with private attorneys still serving as public defenders.

“We have been incrementally moving in the direction of converting the whole state,” said Public Advocate Ernie Lewis, who was appointed by Governor Paul Patton as chief administrator in 1996.

“I am really excited about this. Kentucky has taken a huge step forward in providing high quality justice for poor people charged with crimes,” Lewis said.

The effort was first concentrated on counties the need was the greatest.

“We identified places with the most problems,” Lewis continued, saying Barren and Metcalfe counties were the last to be converted, in part because both had a “fairly decent contract public defender system.”

The new Public Defenders Office will be staffed by five attorneys, including Greg Berry, Resa Gardner, Adam Greenway, Paul Vanni and one as of yet unfilled vacancy.

The office will serve Barren, Metcalfe and Monroe counties and will include a full-time detective, administrative specialist to track caseloads, and a secretary.

Terry Harris, a former detective with Barren County Sheriff’s Office who retired in July, will serve as public defender investigator.

“It’s a red letter day for the entire court system,” Circuit Court Judge for Barren and Metcalfe counties Phil Patton said.

The Public Advocacy Commission hosted a series of meetings seeking input from those in the criminal justice system after the 2004 Defender Caseload Report showed caseloads have increased by 12 percent annually.

At that time, it was nearly twice the level recommended in nationally-recognized standards.

Statistics show caseloads for public defenders remain excessively high not only in Kentucky, but in other states which are also struggling to provide legal services for indigent people.

Public defenders handle some 480 cases per year and have on average of only four hours to prepare for each case, according to the data collected.

A system in which attorneys are spread too thin and are forced to juggle dozens of cases simultaneously could jeopardize justice for some defendants and lead to false convictions, say some in the criminal justice system.

“To me that’s not what the sixth amendment had in mind,” Lewis said.

The Department of Public Advocacy points to the ballooning cost of incarcerating people convicted of crimes as just one more reason for a statewide public defender system.

“It’s very important all the verdicts being issued are reliable and just,” said Shannon Means, executive advisor for the Office of Public Advocacy.

During the 2005 General Assembly, legislators allotted $1.8 million in funding to address the caseload problem.

But more still needs to be done to alleviate the burgeoning caseload of public defenders, say proponents.

The Department of Public Advocacy is requesting an additional $10 million from the Kentucky General Assembly to make the transition to a fully funded public defender system.

“Unless there is significant relief from excessive defender caseloads, justice will continue to be jeopardized,” Lewis said.

Contact Stacy Neitzel by emailing sneitzel@glasgowdailytimes.com.



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