Public defenders in Indiana say they are bogged down with misdemeanor cases

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - The Public Defender Commission is pushing for lawmakers to pass two bills that would help fund and staff public defender offices statewide.

House Bill 1453 would create a state appellate office, which would allow Hoosiers more access to appeals. It would also provide reimbursement for misdemeanor cases.

Senate Bill 488 would, in so many words, allow counties to combine resources.

The problem, the commission says, is that while there is a caseload threshold for felony cases, there is no limit as to how many misdemeanors attorneys can take on. It is leading to a case overload in dozens of counties.

"Each public defender generally has more cases than they can reasonably handle," Vice Chair Larry Landis said. "Each of those cases require significant time - to interviewing your client, doing an independent, factual investigation - a lot goes into a case."

The Public Defender Commission pointed out that there is a lot more work to do, too, when the client has a mental illness or an addiction.

"It can truly grind your life to a halt, even for something as simple as a misdemeanor. It can cause you to lose your employment and take you out of the workforce. Frankly, it can prevent you from accessing needed help," Kathleen Kasey explained. "The public deserves a lot better."

The case overload appears to be an issue in all 92 Indiana counties, including Marion County.

"I was assigned 1,000 cases last year," Marion County Public Defender Kendal Gulbrandsen said.

Records show every single Marion County misdemeanor public defender was assigned more than 500 cases in 2018.

"There are a lot of public intoxication, trespass, things people feel are pretty minor," public defender supervisor Mitch Swedarsky said. "But they are important."

Swedarsky said even as a supervisor, he is in court everyday.

"Trials, pre-trials, bond reviews," he listed. "It's a huge amount of work for everyone."

Marion County said HB 1453, which would provide misdemeanor reimbursement, would be appreciated because it would help fund their office. It would potentially allow the office to hire more attorneys and support staff like social workers and translators. That would free up attorneys to do the court work.

"You need to have the time to help these people and help them out on our level before the crimes get more severe," Swedarsky said. "If you take care of a man or woman that has a mental illness at the misdemeanor level, maybe you can prohibit a murder or some kind of violent crime later on."

"I think that will go a long way to reducing crime and reducing recidivism," Gulbrandsen went on.

CBS4 learned as well, public defenders that work on misdemeanors also work on CHINS cases in Indiana. They help mitigate thousands of cases in which children are in need of services and guardians could lose their parental rights.

The Ways and Means Committee will look over the wording and discuss the two proposed bills within the next couple of weeks.

"We’re coming to the legislature after two years of work,” Kasey said. “We didn’t come up yesterday with these reforms. We’ve really done our homework.”

In the meantime, the National Association for Public Defense is now looking into Indiana’s public defenders and how many cases each attorney has. The board, which has done similar studies in other states, will determine what a reasonable amount is for one individual.

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