It use to be if you're accused of a crime in Jefferson County, Alabama, and are too poor to afford a lawyer, the court would appoint a private attorney to represent you. Starting Monday that changes. Jefferson County now has a single, dedicated public defenders office to handle such cases.
Kira Fonteneau leads a staff of 35 in what's officially called the Community Law Office.
"It's a big change. I think anyone who says it isn't doesn't appreciate what a centralized public defenders office can bring to the community," Fonteneau said.
Advocates of such a public defender system say needy clients receive better treatment than under an appointed system. Birmingham Defense Attorney Eric Guster says appointed lawyers may not have expertise in criminal defense and just use the work to pay the light bill.
"I saw a case where a person was going to be pled guilty by a lawyer who was inexperienced and I stepped in an handled the case pro bono for that person because the lawyer who was handling that case was simply not prepared," Guster said.
Proponents also say having a single office for public defense saves money over paying appointed lawyers case by case. Last year, the state spent $12.3 million dollars on indigent defense in Jefferson County. This year the public defenders office is budged for $5 million dollars.
Such a public defender system is not uncommon across the country. According to the advocacy group Sixth Amendment Center, about half of states primarily use the public defender model. There are almost one thousand public defender offices, which tend to be found in larger cities. But in Alabama it's relatively rare. Jefferson County is only the sixth county to follow this method. It was prompted by a 2011 law centralizing indigent defense at the state level.
Retired judge Joseph Colquitt helped set up the public defender office in Tuscaloosa County. He says moving to that model doesn't inherently mean better representation.
"You can have a highly qualified generalist appointed. You could potentially have a less qualified, although full-time public defender who doesn't quite have the skill set of the generalist," Colquitt said.
A public defender system does give lawmakers more budget certainty, but Colquitt says per case it's hard to determine if it saves money.
"Maybe a public defender system is actually cheaper when you're talking about capital murder cases but more expensive if you're talking about bar fights," said Colquitt.
It's important to note the Jefferson County public defenders office won't handle all indigent cases. It doesn't cover the Bessemer division and there will be conflicts of interest so some outside lawyers will still be appointed.
One person public defenders will tangle with is Jefferson County District Attorney Brandon Falls. He says representation for the poor is already good and he expects the new office to be just as adversarial. But when it comes to working out procedures and protocols, Falls says having a single office is more efficient than an appointed system.
"When you're dealing with 50 to 100 plus private attorneys there's not really any way to do that," Falls said. "That's more like herding cats."
Public defenders offices aren't without issues. They're often targets when budgets are tight. Caseloads can be overwhelming. The clients themselves may be suspicious of accepting a "government lawyer" they perceive to be just part of the system.
Nevertheless, assistant public defender Texys Morris is eager to start working. She wants the best outcome for her clients, but also wants them treated with dignity.
"They're not just a number. They're not just, you know, folks in a prison jumpsuit," Morris said. "They're real people with real lives and real stories."
Those stories will continue to be told in Jefferson County courtrooms. But now through the voice of a public defenders office.
~ Andrew Yeager, October 21, 2013