An ongoing battle over Luzerne County Public Defender’s Office staffing levels was highlighted in a front-page USA Today article published Wednesday.
The article, which focused on the 50th anniversary of a Supreme Court ruling granting the indigent the constitutional right to a lawyer, described county Chief Public Defender Al Flora as a “rebel” for suing the county — his employer — seeking more staff to fulfill this mandate.
Governments across the country are struggling to fund an increasing demand for indigent representation sparked by rising criminal cases.
A Luzerne County judge ultimately will decide if additional employees are warranted in the local Public Defender’s Office. A court hearing isn’t expected for months because both sides must have time to gather information to support their positions, a process known as discovery.
John Dean, the county’s outside attorney, said a consultant reviewed prior court transcripts in the case and “already believes the office is properly staffed.”
The Public Defender’s Office has a $2.7 million budget this year, compared to $2.5 million in 2012. The budget provides funding for 40 positions, including 24 full-time and part-time assistant public defenders.
As part of discovery, Dean plans to collect depositions from all the office’s assistant public defenders, interviewing them about their caseloads, schedules and work processes to determine if the office is “efficiently run.”
After initial mediation related to the suit, the county authorized technology upgrades in the Public Defender’s Office and a larger office space previously occupied by register of wills in the county’s Penn Place building in downtown Wilkes-Barre, Dean said.
Dean disputes continued assertions that the county had refused to allow Flora to fill five vacant assistant public defender’s office positions before Flora filed legal action. Dean said the positions had been budgeted, but county Manager Robert Lawton had not received a formal request from Flora required to fill the positions.
Flora said he can’t detail what additional positions he’s seeking because of the pending litigation, but he said the office is “still faced with overwhelming caseloads” totalling about 4,000 annually. He cited an example of one part-time assistant with more than 200 open cases.
The office must defend low-income clients who request representation for misdemeanor or felony charges. It also handles juvenile and state parole cases and represents people facing involuntary commitment to mental-health facilities and criminal contempt in protection-from-abuse cases, he said.
One full-time assistant public defender handles about 450 involuntary commitment hearings annually and must regularly travel to mental-health facilities in Danville, Philadelphia and Clarks Summit, he said.
He also said the office’s four investigators are often pulled from case research because they must examine the finances and backgrounds of applicants to ensure they qualify for representation.
“I don’t have an intake officer to run all these checks,” Flora said.
Flora had temporarily halted applications for some types of representation, citing staffing shortages, but was later ordered to service everyone who qualifies.
He said a new computerized case management system that should be operational in April will help staffers by allowing them to access and share files online. He used about $12,000 in funds budgeted for the five positions “the county did not allow to be filled” to buy the system.
Flora doesn’t expect the burden on his office to relax because the county has a “high poverty level” and increasing percentage of “more serious crimes.”
His litigation and push for more staff have made him unpopular among many citizens who regularly attend county council meetings. Some of them circulated a link to the USA Today article Wednesday.
Hazleton resident Kathy Dobash, who is running for a Republican county council nomination, forwarded her response through the email chain, saying Flora is “full of excuses” and should not be hired as the permanent chief public defender under home rule.
Nine people, including Flora, have applied for the chief public defender post, one of eight division head positions that must be filled by the manager with council confirmation.
Flora said he has urged county officials to push legislators to start providing state funding for indigent defense.
“I’m on record advocating for state funding, but until that happens, the obligation falls on the county to fulfill that constitutional mandate,” he said.