Last weekend, the West Virginia Legislature finished up a special session that was needed (as it always is) to pay all the bills. Among the bills outstanding was a $21 million back log for payments to court appointed counsel in criminal cases. Not public defenders, mind you, but the private attorneys who take appointments.
Late payments to those attorneys have been a problem for years, but the size of this year's bill has made some legislators really take notice. Among the things they've figured out - PDs tend to do the work less expensively:
Sen. Frank Deem, R-Wood, blamed the office's funding woes on the Legislature's inability to mandate Public Defenders Service offices statewide.Private attorneys are a key component of any good system of indigent defense. PDs have conflicts and limited resources. Besides, while PDs have a specialized knowledge base in criminal law, a broader perspective from a private practice has its advantages as well. But the best systems use both and overload neither.
Currently, the offices -- staffed by attorneys paid in the $40,000 to $70,000 range -- cover only 29 of the 55 counties.* * *
Deem said many court-appointed lawyers make much more than the salaried public defenders, at appointed counsel rates of $45 an hour out-of-court, and $65 an hour in-court.
'In Wood County, some of these [court-appointed] public defenders are making over $200,000 a year,' he said. 'All of this money is going for the court-appointed attorneys.'