Opiate epidemic helps lead to public defender agency budget shortfalls

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Marion County’s Public Defender Agency is quickly running out of money.

Bob Hill, Marion County’s Chief Public Defender says funding for the agency hasn’t kept pace with the increasing caseload.

Four different types of cases are stretching his office thin: level 5 and level 6 felonies, “Children in Need of Services” and “Termination of Parental Rights” cases.

Parents battling addiction, who are fighting the state in order to keep their kids, are a leading cause for the last two types of cases.

“Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen an explosion of termination cases and CHINS cases,” said Hill.

The agency has to defend more and more parents who can’t afford their own lawyer, but the budget hasn’t increased  at the same rate.

“I feel like a little Dutch boy sticking his fingers in the dyke and it’s just, I don’t have any fingers left,” said Hill.

A board in Hill’s office breaks down some of the numbers.

CHINS cases have gone up 104%, meaning they’ve doubled, since 2013.

At 139% growth, termination of parental rights cases have more than doubled in the same time, which means a growing number of parents are in danger of losing their kids.

“We’re barely keeping up,” said Hill. “There’s just not enough.”

As more parents overdose in cars or at home with their kids nearby, DCS and local police have received funding hikes to deal with the statewide impact of opiates.

Hill says his budget hasn’t seen a matching increase.

“We want to protect our kids,” said Hill. “I get it. But they’re so well-funded that we’re just not able to keep pace. And with this opioid epidemic, it’s making it double trouble.”

Hill already had to take money from some parts of his next quarter budget to pay for the staff needed to stay compliant with the state’s Public Defender Commission. Now he needs the city-county council to vote to bring his budget out of the red.

“We go from quarter to quarter, just trying to shore it up, filling the gaps,” said Hill.

This though, Hill says, would only be a temporary fix. It’s one he imagines he’ll have to keep asking for if things continue trending the way they are.

“You can’t put more police officers on the street and not expect arrests to go up,” said Hill. “You can’t put more DCS caseworkers out there and not expect cases to go up. So you have to fund the other side of that equation.”

Without a permanent solution from the state, his office caseload will eventually grow so large, they’ll fail to meet state standards.

There are two bills on the issue under consideration at the statehouse that would increase funding for public defenders agencies statewide, HB 1405 and SB 523.

If passed, reimbursements to public defenders for cases would go up to 50 percent from the current 40 percent. Without it, Hill says many agencies like his that are “barely compliant” now, may not be able to meet state standards.

Hill says not only will that mean loss of state funding, but also the erosion of the quality of protection of a fundamental right.

“You don’t want to put an innocent person in jail and you don’t want to take someone’s kids away from them when they shouldn’t be taken from them, said Hill.

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