Each Ohio county sets its own pay scale for appointed attorneys

COLUMBUS — If your loved one were charged with rape or murder, would you want him to rely on an attorney who would be paid no more than $500 to defend him? What if he were facing the death penalty, and the lawyer’s pay was capped at $6,000?

In Ohio, some counties have set the maximum fees for appointed counsel so low that attorneys are being asked to represent indigent defendants for as little as $150 in juvenile court, $500 for a felony in adult court and $225 for a misdemeanor in adult court.

In Knox County, the appointed counsel fees are capped at $6,000 in a death penalty case.

The capped fee has to cover expenses, such as expert witnesses and investigators, as well as attorney time. Attorneys may petition the court for extraordinary fees, but generally they’re paid $40 to $60 an hour up to the caps.

If the attorney puts the time in required to investigate a case, prepare for trial, attend pre-trials, and argue it before a judge and jury, he may end up working for less than minimum wage on an hourly basis, according to Ohio Public Defender Tim Young.

While $45 an hour may sound like a good wage, Young notes that overhead costs such as rent, insurance and support staff also come out of that hourly rate.

Early in his career, attorney Greg Gantt took appointed cases to get experience and a flow of work. Now an experienced attorney, Gantt said the low rates and caps make it a losing proposition for him.

“I’m losing money after the first hour and a half, sitting waiting for the judge to call my case,” he said.

Stephanie Allen, an attorney with Wright State University’s student legal services, enjoys handling appointed work in juvenile court, but said the $750 cap is too low.

“I can easily hit my $750 before that case is closed. I think the cap is too low,” she said. If she asks for extraordinary fees, typically the court approves only a fraction, Allen said.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided Gideon v Wainwright in 1963, ruling that people accused of crimes are entitled to a legal defense, even if they can’t afford one.

In Ohio, each county decides how to go about meeting that requirement. Bigger counties, including Montgomery, typically have public defender offices with staff attorneys and supplement that system with appointed counsel. Smaller counties rely entirely on counsel appointed by the judges.

Statewide, judges doled out $1.8 million worth of appointed work between March 2008 and February 2009, according to billing records maintained by the Ohio Public Defender.

The state and counties split the cost of indigent defense, though the local governments typically get stuck with a larger share.

In 1976, Ohio passed a law mandating that the state pay 50 percent of indigent defense costs. By 1978, lawmakers amended it to say “up to 50 percent,” and over the years the state’s share dipped as low as 25 percent in 2008. Currently, the state will pay 35 percent of the bill.

Young argues that a centralized public defender system with regional offices would be more efficient and cost effective than 88 counties each having its own system.

Contact this reporter at (614) 224-1624 or lbischoff@Dayton DailyNews.com.

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