Defenders office questions grand jury report
by Laura Braddick
lbraddick@mdjonline.com
July 17, 2011 12:00 AM | 4163 views | 4 4 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MARIETTA — Cobb’s Circuit Defenders Office administrator said he doesn’t understand why a grand jury report released earlier this week said the office lacks transparency.

“I don’t know how much more transparent we can be,” Randy Harris said.

He said the report was confusing because the recommendations do not match what the grand jury said.

“(The jury) says I gave them everything we had,” Harris said. “I pulled it together for them and met with them.”

The report acknowledges the office has taken steps to save money by using contract attorneys and a rigorous system for determining if defendants qualify for the service, noting the denial rate for defendants has grown from 10.7 percent in 2007 to 30.6 percent in 2010.

Yet the report goes on to recommend the office be reviewed every six months and provide better records to the County Commission.

“These reports should include the annual payments to panel lawyers,” the report reads. “These records and reports should be part of the public record.”

But Harris said that, as a public office, all of its documents are on the record.

“Everything they’ve been given is part of the public record,” he said. “The budget numbers came through the county budget office.”

The recommendations also say the three-person advisory committee comprising Harris, local attorney Joel Pugh and Latona Thomas, who heads the county’s Internal Audit office, may be too small to effectively manage their responsibilities.

The committee meets once a month to assist Harris in filling open attorney positions and reviews all attorney bills more than $900, Harris said.

“They’re not running the office. Their responsibilities are limited,” he said, noting the grand jury did not interview Pugh or Thomas. “They’re very knowledgeable, and I think the committee is effective.”

Despite disagreeing with report, Harris said the office will continue to cooperate with future committees.

“We will look forward to another appearance in front of the grand jury, and we will clearly respond to each concern that they have,” he said. “I’m happy to do that. We’re a public office and we want to do a good job. We’re certainly not perfect, we want to do a better job. We’re always looking to improve.”

The circuit defender’s office handles defense of indigent defendants. The office has 20 “contract” attorneys, who are independent contractors paid a set fee to handle cases for a particular courtroom, regardless of the number of cases.

The office also has a list of more than 200 private attorneys who represent individual indigent defendants and bill the county by the hour for those cases. Those are known as “panel” attorneys.

Part-time contract lawyers handle basic counsel up to plea bargain arrangements incurring no jail time, but if a defendant goes to court, a panel lawyer takes over the case.

The grand jury report states this system provided “a fast and efficient legal service to the more minor cases, while providing more qualified lawyers to more major cases.”

An April grand jury report claimed the cost savings for using panel attorneys was overstated and that the office overspent its budget, among other concerns.

But Harris and Superior Court Administrator Tom Charron disputed the reports, saying the jurors had been provided with inaccurate information.

Cobb County opted out of the State Public Defenders system eight years ago and receives $500,000 from the state each year to help run the circuit defenders program. Harris’ office has a total annual budget of $5.2 million for this fiscal year.

The rest of the office’s income comes from the county.
Comments
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Dan Britt
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July 18, 2011
Cobb County gets an excellent bargain for its indigent defense panel. And indigent defendants get prompt efficient resolution if the case is a simple or an experienced trial attorney if the case is tried.

Randy Harris is an experienced attorney and no stranger to the courtroom. Clearly, this Grand Jury ignored the facts. Perhaps they resented our shared Constitutional right to counsel regardless of one's ability to pay.

Darth Bunny
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July 18, 2011
That particular Grand Jury seemed upset that the County MUST pay for the representation of indigent defendants. Their irritation should have been directed toward the U.S. Supreme Court. If the Grand Jurors took the time to look into what the Circuit Defender's Office accomplishes they would be amazed at the "bang for the buck" the office returns.
Jonathan L.
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July 17, 2011
This system is unfair because a few attornys get the plum (most lucrative) assignments, although they're no more qualified than anyone else. Those positions go to people who take extra care (do anyting they can) to ensure they are friends of Pugh and Harris. And it appears that Pugh actually runs everything. A lot of Cobb attorney are afraid to say anything about this because they need those panel cases. Yes, the advisory committee should be enlarged, even to include regular citizens; it should not be actually run by one person.
Works at courthouse
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July 17, 2011
I would say that all of the contract attorneys are well qualified for their positions. If a case cannot be settled with a probation sentence at the time of the arraignment, and 4th Amendment or other Constitutional violations by the law enforcement officers may come into play, the case is assigned to a panel attorney who is as no more qualified as the contract attorney, but can spend more time on the case "flyspecking" so to speak the DA's case to make sure the assistant DA can back up, i.e., prove the case as stated in the charging document. The contract attorneys are just as qualified as any lawyer who appears before any of our judges on an appointed or privately retained basis. The contract attorneys are not a group of newbies fresh out of law school, on the contrary, many have well over 20 years of experience in criminal matters, some with former prosecutorial experience. The folks behind this investigation are viewed having agendas hidden from the public, and the phrase "glass houses" comes to my mind regarding most of them. Tempest in a teapot anyone?
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