GREENFIELD — Every time John Apple sees a mugshot on the front page of the newspaper, dollar signs flash in his mind.
A drunken-driving case will cost a couple hundred dollars; a child molest might carry a price tag in the thousands. Homicides — a cool $50,000, easily, said Apple, a local attorney.
An increase in drug-related activity and crime spilling over from in Marion County will likely cost taxpayers more money in 2016, officials say. An increase in high-profile felony cases — including eight murder cases in the past two years, all requiring public defenders — is drying up the county’s $500,000 public defender fund.
More than 60 percent of defendants charged with felonies in 2015 told a judge they couldn’t afford to pay for private counsel — leaving taxpayers to foot the bill for their attorney. In Hancock County, public defenders make $90 an hour.
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Police say some of the most serious cases they’ve had to handle in recent years — including two homicides in which a person’s body was dumped along a public roadway in Hancock County — resulted from incidents that occurred miles away, outside county lines.
Those cases resulted in five suspects being charged with murder in local courts. And not one of them could afford an attorney, so Hancock County residents paid for the defendants to have their day in court.
It’s those cases that drain the public, officials say. Those leading the county’s public defender board say they’ll likely have to approach the Hancock County Council for more taxpayer funds to cover the inevitable shortfall — their second request in as many years.
A fight for funding
Thirty-five attorneys in Hancock County — most of whom also do private work — make up the local public defender board.They can be assigned to any criminal case filed in the county and are paid the same hourly rate no matter the severity of the alleged crime, said Apple, who serves as chairman of the public board.
Of the about 240 felony cases filed so far this year, 97 defendants, or 40 percent, have asked for a taxpayer-funded attorney to represent them in court. That includes three people charged with murder — a crime police, prosecutors and public defenders say takes the most time to close.
Since 2007, prosecutors have filed murder charges against 10 people; eight were charged in the last two years.
In 2015, Apple had to ask the county council for a boost to his budget — which fell $90,000 short. In the first three months of the year, public defenders had already burned through $172,400 of the board’s $506,800 budget, with three murder cases — which average $81,000 apiece — still pending.
Apple is certain he’ll need to ask the council for additional funding before the year comes to a close.
County taxpayers foot the majority of that bill, records show: the state reimburses 40 percent of the money spent on felony cases only. That reimbursed money — about $181,000 in 2015 — goes into the county’s general fund, not back into the public defender budget.
The time it takes
During homicide investigations handled by the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, it’s common for all six detectives to devote all their time to a single case, said Capt. Jeff Rasche, the head of the department’s investigations unit.In January, when a passerby spotted the body of Shannon Kitchens lying off the side of the West County Road 500N, the department’s entire investigative team and a handful of other officers worked the case, racking up more than 140 hours of overtime in just one week, Rasche said.
A public defender, in turn, must sort through everything those detectives learned in that time — often comprising boxes of paperwork and piles of evidence.
Where drunken-driving cases could take an attorney just five hours to see through to a plea agreement, a murder or high-level felony case could take upward of 900 hours to complete, Apple said.
“Those kinds of cases tend to cost more money to deal with because … they are more serious,” Apple said.
Public defenders work as efficiently as possible to bring a case to close; it’s not in their best interest to drag their feet, as the $90 hourly rate is typically lower than what they’d receive from a regular client, Apple pointed out.The time — and resulting expense — adds up quickly, especially if a case goes to trial, Chief Deputy Prosecutor Marie Castetter said.
There are conferences every few months to check in with the judge about how a case is going; special meetings to collect recorded out-of-court testimony from people involved with the case or experts familiar with an area of crime; and eight-hour days inside the courthouse presenting evidence to a jury.
It all ends up costing taxpayers money because prosecutors and public defenders have to be present for every moment of the proceedings, Castetter said.
Prosecutors are salaried employees, but public defenders bill the county for every hour that passes.
A defendant is entitled by law to legal help — free or not — Castetter said.
“The constitution doesn’t apply just to those who have money; it applies to everyone,” she said.
Tough to predict
It’s hard to determine how much money to allocate for public defenders because there is no way to predict the cases the county will see, said Bill Bolander, the Hancock County Council president.There are ebbs and flows from year to year, sometimes from month to month, Bolander said. The council can’t budget high for everything because there are too many areas of local finance to consider, he said.
Council members know they might need to dip into the county’s savings to help cover the difference again this year.
They eye the headlines with the same frustration Apple describes.
“Having the murders just costs more,” Bolander said.
In terms of violent crime, Hancock County remains well behind its record-setting neighbor to the west; Marion County police handled 144 homicide investigations last year, according to the The Associated Press.
But as Indianapolis sees an increase in crime, Hancock County sees a trickle over, Maj. Brad Burkhart, the sheriff’s chief deputy said. It seems robberies in Hancock County are more often committed by someone from Indianapolis, and drug overdoses here often lead to dealers across the county line.
“As society changes, we see changes as well,” he said.