‘Devastating’ loss of indigent defenders in Gwinnett County

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Gwinnett County had 132 indigent defense attorneys in January 2020, representing people accused of crimes who could not afford to pay lawyers.

Now, the county has about 80 and is especially short-staffed in superior court, which handles felonies.

“It’s a devastating drop,” said David Lipscomb, chairman of the county’s Indigent Defense Governing Committee. “We’re in trouble and we’re trying to recruit and retain what we have.”

The Indigent Defense Governing Committee last month sent a recruiting memo to the Atlanta Bar Association announcing changes in hopes of attracting more attorneys.

ExploreIn Georgia, hundreds of people charged with crimes have no legal representation

Unlike public defenders in most neighboring counties, Gwinnett’s indigent defense attorneys are not salaried. Instead, they are private attorneys whom the county pays by the hour, and their hours dropped precipitously when courtrooms were closed earlier in the coronavirus pandemic, Lipscomb said.

Some of Gwinnett’s indigent defense attorneys then went to work for law firms or public defender offices where they received a steady pay check, Lipscomb said. Some moved into other specialties, such as family law or business litigation. They were hard to replace as people coming out of law school shied away from indigent defense in the pandemic environment.

“The ones that we have are back in court and they’re overworked, and that puts stress on the system,” Lipscomb said.

The statewide scarcity of public defenders only adds to the difficulty.

“We’re all competing in a smaller pool of willing lawyers and everybody has a shortage,” Lipscomb said. “We’re stealing from each other at this point.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this month reported underfunding at the state level led to a mass exodus of lawyers from the state system, which does not include Gwinnett. In response, Georgia Public Defender Council Executive Director Omotayo Alli wrote a letter last week to the AJC editorial board denying she had prioritized cost-cutting over representing indigent defendants.

ExploreCrisis in Georgia’s public defender system fuels case backlog, jail overcrowding

The Atlanta Judicial Circuit, which serves Fulton County, has about five vacancies in its roster of 121 public defenders, said Maurice Kenner, the circuit public defender who oversees the department. Federal coronavirus relief funding is paying for 19 of the attorneys, Kenner said.

As of the end of last month, Fulton County had a backlog of about 4,500 criminal cases, not including unindicted cases, according to the court administrator’s office. Kenner said public defender staffing levels are not contributing to the backlog.

“We’re capable of handling all of the cases right now with what we have,” he said.

The DeKalb County public defender’s office is fully staffed with 65 lawyers paid for by state and county funds, but “we can always use more,” Chief Assistant Public Defender Leticia Deland said.

Rob Greenwald, who has served for 30 years as an indigent defense attorney in Gwinnett Superior Court, said he took a substantial financial hit when courtrooms were closed, effectively freezing many of his cases.

“We’ve cranked back up since then,” Greenwald said. “We’re still dealing, trying to get through all those cases plus new cases that continue to come in.”

His clients’ charges are among the most labor intensive to defend, including child molestation, armed robbery — and currently, a dozen murder cases.

“If we had more lawyers on the A list, I might have eight murders to work on instead of 12,” he said. “You can devote more time, energy and attention to a particular case if another case went to another lawyer because right now, to do this job well, it’s not a nine-to-five Monday through Friday. I mean, you end up working on weekends, holidays, but it’s extremely rewarding.”

In a budget resolution, the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners last month formalized funding for indigent defense attorney raises that the governing committee approved last year. The rate for capital cases increased from $85 to $100 per hour and other felony cases went from $70 or $75 to $90 per hour.

For misdemeanor and juvenile cases, Gwinnett’s indigent defenders last year made between $50 and $60 per hour, but the county now pays them $85 per hour.

Gwinnett’s hourly rates for felony cases are now among the highest in the state for contract public defenders, Lipscomb said.

The raises increased the indigent defense budget from $5 million to $6 million per year, Lipscomb said. A little more than $500,000 comes from the state.

The governing committee recently suspended its 100-case limit for its attorneys while allowing them to temporarily drop off the roster if they become overloaded. The committee also established a mentorship program for new lawyers and for lawyers who exclusively work on misdemeanors to gain the necessary experience for superior court cases, Lipscomb said.

Additionally, the committee is attempting to hire the old-fashioned way — by encouraging its attorneys to invite their lawyer friends.

ExploreMore stories about Gwinnett County

Lipscomb estimated the indigent defense panel is picking up four or five new lawyers per month while losing one or two.

“These kinds of things take time to mature and to have an effect,” he said. “I’m optimistic that, over time, the lawyers will come back.”