BY KEN LITTLE
Anyone charged with a crime in Greene County who requests a public defender should not expect a free ride.
General Sessions Court Judge Kenneth Bailey Jr. said he and Criminal Court Judge John Dugger Jr. make sure that defendants pay their fair share and do not burden taxpayers.
That's not the case in many other Tennessee counties.
The result is that Greene County leads the state in fees collected from defendants who are assigned court-appointed lawyers. In 2011, Greene County returned $83,357 to the state.
"I feel like especially if people can find the money to bond out of jail, they need to find the money to pay for their appointed attorney," Bailey said.
In Greene County, more than 50 percent of defendants are assigned court-appointed public defenders or private lawyers, Bailey said.
"We have a higher unemployment rate. Combine that with folks who are charged with drug and alcohol issues, and it's a combination of factors that prohibit them from hiring an attorney," Bailey said.
Criminal case defendants who appear before Bailey must respond to questions relating to their financial status.
Questions include whether they rent or own a property, if they are employed, how much money they make, when they were last employed, why they are not working if unemployed, and if they own a vehicle.
It's the same information defendants must include on an indigency form when they request a public defender, "and I rely on them to be truthful," Bailey said.
The financial status of an individual determines how much they must pay.
"On average, the fee is $100 to $125 for appointment of an attorney," Bailey said.
The fee is still a bargain, Bailey said.
"A private attorney is going to charge them a minimum of $500 for a minor offense in General Sessions Court," he said.
In the case of a conflict of interest, sometimes caused by multiple defendants in a case, one of the defendants will receive a public defender and others will have private lawyers appointed.
The state pays private lawyers $40 an hour for work outside court and $50 an hour for time in the courtroom, the judge said.
Both the federal and state constitutions require courts to appoint counsel for criminal defendants who cannot afford an attorney.
In cases where the public defender is unable to represent a criminal defendant, a private lawyer is appointed as counsel and is paid by the state through the indigent defense fund. The fund also pays for appointed counsel for parents and children in child welfare cases.
Making defendants pay for at least a portion of their court expenses gives them a better sense of responsibility, Bailey said.
"I think people appreciate representation a lot more when they pay for that representation," he said.
OTHER COUNTIES LAG
Bailey isn't sure why judges in many other counties, including ones with bigger populations, don't require defendants to pay at least some of the cost for a lawyer assigned through the Tennessee Office of the Public Defender.
While Greene County returned more than $83,000 to the state in public defender fees in 2011, Knox County, for instance, only deposited $61,733 with the state. The 2011 figure for Washington County is $16,090.
The total money returned statewide for 2011 for assigned counsel is about $1.66 million.
Public defenders are also appointed if needed in Greene County Juvenile Court, which Bailey also presides over.
"I feel like I'm doing my job. Part of doing my job on behalf of the citizens of Tennessee and Greene County is making folks who [are given] the fee I assess pay it," he said.
Bailey said the Circuit Court clerk's office gets a 5 percent commission from the assessment fees paid to the court, another benefit of making defendants pay a percentage of their legal expenses.
Those who don't pay the assessed fee may regret it later.
"Their failure to pay can be a factor I take into consideration when I sentence them," he said.
Bailey may not make someone who has bonded out of jail pay his or her assessment fee by their first court date because they may not have access to the money.
He began emphasizing defendants' paying a portion of their appointed counsel fees in late 2010. Greene County returned $44,393 to the state for that year.
In the fall of 2010, the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) hired a compliance officer to further verify the accuracy and validity of attorney fee claims for representation of indigent defendants.
The compliance officer examines fee claims and travels across the state to meet with attorneys about potential discrepancies and educate them about proper billing procedures and records maintenance.
"The AOC has always audited every attorney fee claim that has been submitted to our office. Now, we are intensifying our fee claims review process to ensure taxpayer's dollars are being spent appropriately," Elizabeth Sykes, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, said in a recent news release.
The issue of accountability is currently a hot topic in the state General Assembly, Bailey said.
A bill is pending that would require that those who post a bond of $5,000 or more not be eligible to have a lawyer appointed, he said.