A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

State’s public defender program gets federal grant to help alleviate case backups due to conflict of interest

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The US Department of Justice (DOJ) Bureau of Justice Assistance announced that the Department of Public Advocacy (DPA), Kentucky’s statewide public defender program, was awarded $374,859 under the DOJ Smart Defense Initiative program to address longstanding problems with its conflict representation system.

In FY 15, DPA was appointed to represent 153,358 cases at the trial level with 9,380 presenting a conflict of interest. DPA is responsible for ensuring the cases that present a conflict have ethical representation. The ability to accomplish this is impaired by the limited available funding, $1.48 million. Of the 9,380 cases presenting a conflict, 1,194 were handled by another DPA office, 4,049 were maintained by the local office after the client waived the conflict, and 4,313 were contracted to local private counsel at an average amount of $344.

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The awarded funds will be used to implement sustainable changes to DPA’s methods of contracting conflict work including modification of DPA conflict contracts, DPA policies on conflict cases, conduct of conflict case and file review standards including documenting work done in conflict cases, time spent on cases, and client contact. DPA recruitment standards will be developed, including minimum training and experience qualifications and ongoing education requirements.

Public Advocate Ed Monahan praised DOJ for its active support of public defenders and its assistance to DPA’s conflict challenges. “Kentucky faces significant legal vulnerabilities with its conflict system that lacks adequate resources. Kentucky’s problems are so significant that the 2011 Kentucky Bar Association Task Force on the Provision and Compensation of Conflict Counsel for Indigents recommended an additional $5.6 million for adequate conflict representation of defendants.” Monahan said, “The $344 per case level of funding is not adequate to compensate private attorneys for the work required to provide timely, competent representation. These conflict cases are primarily felony offenses and require multiple client interviews, interaction with the prosecutor, researching case law and filing motions.”

The purpose of the DOJ Smart Defense Initiative is to improve the quality of public defense delivery systems guided by The Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System, promulgated by the American Bar Association (ABA) in 2002. These principles address defenders’ appropriate function, workload, resources, training, and quality, and have been recognized by the Attorney General “as [an] essential guidepost for ensuring that our indigent defense efforts are as effective- and as efficient – as possible.”

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