TOLEDO, Ohio — The Lucas County commissioners on Friday voted to adjust the county's appointed counsel rates. In a November investigation, 11 Investigates learned that Lucas County had among the lowest rates in the state of Ohio for attorneys appointed to poorer defendants.
Why does this matter? It's all about quality representation. In Lucas County, defendants declared indigent are appointed a lawyer from the public defender's office about one-third of the time. The remaining clients are given private attorneys subject to hourly rates and limited in the amount of money they can bill for a case.
The Ohio Public Defenders Office has calculated that it costs a lawyer with a private practice about $42 an hour to cover overhead. Lucas County's rate of $50 an hour results in attorneys making about $8 an hour after expenses. The benefit is too little for many attorneys in the county and some veteran attorneys refuse to take appointed cases.
The commissioners on Friday voted to increase the hourly rate for appointed counsel to $75 an hour.
“The goal is to have the best qualified lawyers so that the court can appoint people who are best qualified to represent indigent defendants,” Commissioner Gary Byers said after the vote.
An 11 Investigates report in November indicated Lucas County was among a handful of counties paying $50 an hour. In addition, the caps on some cases tied the hands of attorneys. For aggravated murder, attorneys are currently limited to billing for $4,000 as part of their defense. They can ask a judge for extraordinary expenses, and those are routinely granted, but dozens of case filed reviewed by 11 Investigates showed attorneys billing less than $4,000 for first or second-degree felonies.
Seneca County only allows $3,500 for aggravated murder. At this point, they have not voted to amend its counsel caps, even after the numbers were pointed out to commissioners.
For local defense attorney David Klucas, he said the rate hike will have the advantage of drawing in younger, aggressive attorneys trying to make a name for themselves.
"I think it will encourage younger lawyers to come into criminal defense work and it is a sincere gesture by the commissioners and judges.”
November investigation: Capping justice - Cost limits on court-appointed counsel
However, now Lucas County has temporarily complicated its indigent defense problem. With the hourly rate being retroactive to Jan. 1, attorneys will be bumping into the caps even more quickly.
Byers says that is a focus of a work group that has been meeting since late last year.That group includes local judges and members of the bar association and public defender's office.
“The real discussion is what are the appropriate limits for the different types of cases? And that’s what we have to have the real meaty discussions about over the next couple of months,” Byers said.
He is expecting a vote to approve new caps to take place by March.