State's public defenders caught in budget crunch

Sunday, November 2nd 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Budget woes are preventing Oklahoma's indigent defense system from keeping up with its caseload of poor defendants and could expose it to a potential civil rights lawsuit, according to the system's director.

The state agency, which is responsible for defending the poor in criminal cases, is unable to meet staffing standards required by the American Bar Association, said Jim Bednar, executive director of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System.

The standards are accepted by the Department of Justice and used in determining whether an indigent defense system is adequately staffed.

"Our biggest crisis is trying to handle caseloads," Bednar said.

The agency is one of several judicial-related agencies whose budgets are being reviewed by the House Appropriations and Budget Committee's Subcommittee on Public Safety and Judiciary.

Bednar has appeared before the committee in connection with legislation that requires state agencies to justify their budgets to lawmakers through so-called zero-based budgeting.

Officials from the District Attorneys Council and the Attorney General's Office have also appeared before the committee.

They said declining budgets and increasing caseloads are major problems that could lead to elimination of programs and other cuts.

Bednar said more than $2 million has been cut from the indigent defense system since January 2002.

"That's been a real blow to us," he said. "We're experiencing a real overload."

Bednar said the agency also lacks money for professional services, such as hiring outside attorneys when a conflict exists.

The Attorney General's Office has sustained a $1 million reduction because of budget cuts, said Trent Corken, office administrator.

He said most attorneys have not received a raise since 2001, which is hurting morale.

District attorneys across the state also are cutting staff and programs, said Suzanne Atwood, executive director of the District Attorneys Council. She said five district attorneys are furloughing employees.