Annual report calims ‘constitutional crisis’ in Public Defender’s Office because of inadequate funding, staffing.

Last updated: April 08. 2013 11:26PM - 3974 Views
By - jandes@civitasmedia.com - (570) 991-6388

Al Flora poses in his office with files of cases before him, the department is over extended. AIMEE DILGER /THE TIMES LEADER 3/13/2013
Al Flora poses in his office with files of cases before him, the department is over extended. AIMEE DILGER /THE TIMES LEADER 3/13/2013
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County Council will meet at 7:15 tonight in the council meeting room at the county courthouse in Wilkes-Barre. The public defender’s annual report is posted on the council section of the county website, www.luzernecounty.org, under tonight’s meeting agenda.

In what may be his last public presentation as Luzerne County chief public defender tonight, Al Flora plans to highlight the office’s continuing “constitutional crisis” providing competent and effective representation to the poor.

“Preserving this right in an office that has been traditionally underfunded and without adequate resources is a daunting challenge,” Flora wrote in his presentation, which was forwarded to council members Monday.

Council at the start of the year scheduled Flora’s annual report for tonight’s council meeting.

County Manager Robert Lawton also has asked council to vote tonight on his nomination of Kingston attorney Steven M. Greenwald as chief public defender.

Flora, who had applied to keep the chief position, can continue working in the office in a non-union “assistant public defender” position at his current salary of $52,178 if Greenwald is appointed to oversee the office.

Flora’s attorneys issued a statement Monday on council’s pending choice of a chief, saying the county should understand the importance of providing adequate legal representation to juveniles and indigent adults charged with crimes.

“Tomorrow night, members of the new county council will be called upon to make a momentous decision about who will lead the county agency responsible for this constitutional duty. Al Flora not only rescued a juvenile unit from chaos, but turned it into an award-winning program,” said the statement issued Monday from attorney Kimberly D. Borland, of Borland & Borland LLP, in Wilkes-Barre, and attorney Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

The statement said Flora “spoke truth to power” by taking legal action against the county to “increase grossly deficient funding that has prevented – and still prevents — the Public Defender from providing constitutionally adequate representation to adult clients.”

“Under these circumstances, a refusal to retain Al Flora will send a message that only a few years after large-scale juvenile justice deficiencies were revealed, Luzerne County government continues to disregard poor people’s constitutional rights in the juvenile and criminal justice systems,” the statement said.

The county has maintained the office is properly staffed. Flora’s suit over staffing levels is scheduled for trial in county court June 24.

The 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- and part-time assistant public defenders.

Flora’s presentation to council says the office’s equivalent of 10.5 full-time attorneys in the adult unit handled 3,318 criminal defense cases in 2012, or 306.48 cases each. That allowed each attorney 5.59 hours per case based on the county work hours, he said.

“The average amount of time required for handling a mix of cases can require considerably more than six hours,” Flora wrote.

The office has four full-time secretaries to handle correspondence, scheduling, filing, phone calls and other client support services associated with these cases, he said.

“As a result, the work of the attorney staff suffers due to inadequate support staff,” he wrote.

Flora called for caseload standards, saying the county must pay to keep defendants in prison when staffing shortages force case processing delays.

If 80 defendants are incarcerated 30 days longer than necessary, the county pays $228,000 based on the $95 daily cost of lodging each inmate, he said.

“The savings expected to occur through a reduction in Office of Public Defender staff might, at first blush, look good on a ‘bottom line.’ However, the hidden costs and county’s failure to fulfill its constitutional mandate are being ignored,” he wrote.

The office lost a “considerable number” of attorneys due to high caseload volumes the last few years, he said. New attorneys must work with a senior staff attorney mentor for several months and progress in case assignments. He criticized the belief of some in the legal profession that new attorneys should “sink or swim” with larger initial caseloads, saying “such a mentality has no place” in a public defender’s office and is “highly unethical.”

In addition to representing low-income clients facing misdemeanor and felony charges, the office handles juvenile and state parole cases, involuntary commitments to mental-health facilities and criminal contempt charges related to protection-from-abuse cases.

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