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Sullivan courts dealing with shortage of public defenders

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Superior Court Judge H.R. Hunt informed the Sullivan County Council about his court dealing with a shortage of public defenders during their monthly meeting last week.

Before getting to that subject, Hunt told the council the public defender reimbursement from the state of Indiana was in a separate account, totaling $199,863.18.

“I think it should go back in the general fund,” Hunt said. “You’re sitting on $200,000 that goes back to 2010.” 

Council member Tim Abrams suggested those funds could “help kickstart” the county’s efforts to start a public employee retirement fund.

Hunt explained those accumulated funds were derived due to the county courts being a part of the Indiana Public Defender Council. 

“We have to do certain things, follow certain rules, and in exchange for that, 60 percent of all felony public defender expenses are reimbursed to the county,” he said. “So even though we pay on the front end, we’re paid back 60 percent of that.” 

The judge said as long as attorneys are kept within certain limits, they’re not given too many cases. 

“Attorneys have to be approved to handle certain cases,” Hunt said. “In exchange for that, we get reimbursed. That’s a great thing for the county.”

But, he stated the county is “running into a bit of an issue.

“The stable of attorneys is starting to get a little bit thin as time goes on here,” he said. “Deb Shepler is now working in the prosecutor’s office. She took a lot of public defender’s cases.”

Hunt said the court has been utilizing attorneys from other counties — Vigo, Greene and Knox — to handle some of the high-level felons. 

“There’s some stuff going on within the (Indiana) Public Defender Council such that some of these folks are reluctant to accept cases outside of their home counties where they have a contract to be a public defender.

“Recently, I’ve gotten word from public defenders out of Terre Haute that ‘Hey, don’t give me any more cases,’” he continued. “Well, that puts me in a bind because I’m wholly dependent upon them anyway. So I’ve been scrambling, picking up the phone trying to find new attorneys to fill their places.”

Hunt said local attorneys Josh Reshey and Doug Followell are currently “a little out of compliance” in a recent four-quarter period ending Dec. 31, due to the high number of cases they had been appointed.

“I’ve kept in communication with the (Indiana) Public Defender Council and I’ve told them: ‘Here’s what’s going on. Here’s the reason we’re not in compliance.’ We’re addressing it, we know we have an issue and trying to find attorneys to take some of these cases. But it’s a process.”

Hunt said the compliance measurement is updated each quarter, so the earliest they would return to compliance is April. 

“If there’s a drug bust and 10 or 15 people are charged with a Level 1 or 2 felony, good luck finding 10 or 15 attorneys to do that,” Hunt stated. “You have to be certified as an attorney to handle a felony that high and a lot of attorneys are not. They’re only able to qualify to handle misdemeanors or low-level felonies. 

“It gets to be a little hairy sometimes.”

Soon after, the council voted 6-1 to place the funds back into the general fund. Duane Wampler, Curt Bedwell, Larry Kinnett, Jerry Payne, Logan Pearison and Nick Cullison voting in favor, with Abrams voting against.


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