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By BOB WHITE
ELIZABETHTOWN – Elizabethtown’s office of the Department for Public Advocacy is cutting services to indigent clients and will not fill two existing vacancies at its office, officials say.
Future vacancies also may go unfilled because of reduced funding. The cuts stem from Kentucky’s budgetary crisis which hit offices statewide.
The department is tasked with providing defendants with adequate legal counsel in court, regardless of the defendants’ ability to pay. But the state budgetary crisis is making it difficult to provide those constitutional services.
Elizabethtown Public Advocate Shelia Kyle-Reno said the local office no longer will defend clients charged with contempt in child support cases or those arrested on mental inquest warrants. Nor will it fund the defense of clients whose cases cannot be handled by the Elizabethtown office because of conflicts of interest.
“We hope to have those cases appointed to someone from the local bar,” Reno said.
A private attorney appointed to such a case likely would be paid through Kentucky’s Finance Cabinet, Reno said.
She described the cuts as “not as bad as expected.”
Kentucky’s outspoken chief public defender, Ernie Lewis, complained of unethically high attorney caseloads for years and, earlier this year, cited that issue as part of his reason to retire from his post in September.
In the spring, he warned the department would have to cut representation if legislators approved a draft budget including more than $1 million in cuts for DPA.
When a budget passed which cut $2.3 million from the department’s budget, Lewis warned that, because of existing caseloads and last year’s acquisition of Lexington’s busy public defense system, his office no longer would be able to provide the constitutionally guaranteed legal counsel to all of those who cannot afford a private attorney.
With the budgetary cuts now in place, the only way to reduce that caseload was to cut clients.
Monday, a day before the reduced services went in place, Lewis joined the Jefferson County Public Defender Corp. and attorney Frank Mascagni III in filing a lawsuit in Frankfort pleading for a judicial order to keep the state from cutting the department budget and seeking relief from heavy caseloads on behalf of indigent clients.
“Caseloads levels for public defender lawyers have reached the point where the heads of Kentucky’s public defender offices have the ethical obligation to take immediate action,” the lawsuit states.
Mascagni, who represents more than 160 attorneys who handle conflict cases for the DPA, said it is “unconscionable” to have defendants have to “choose between being represented by a public defender with a conflict of interest and excessive caseload or a private attorney practically working pro bono.”
Lewis said the only way to address the budgetary “crisis” responsibly was to limit DPA representation to those clients facing the greatest risk of serving jail or prison time while leaving those involved in less serious cases to be represented by an attorney, hopefully appointed to those cases by a judge.
“We made the difficult but responsible choice that will help us achieve ethical caseloads while this critical issue is litigated and properly resolved,” Lewis said.
Lewis was a major proponent of a pilot social worker program proven capable of saving Kentucky millions in prison costs.
That program, which allowed nonviolent prisoners found to be mentally ill or addicted to alcohol or drugs to enroll in an incarceration diversion plan, was not approved by the General Assembly, despite its ability to save millions of dollars.
Kentucky’s inmate population increased at a higher rate in 2007 than any state.
Bob White can be reached at (270) 505-1750.