Forrest County to add full-time public defenders

Forrest County to add full-time public defenders
Photo credit: WDAM

FORREST COUNTY (WDAM) - Forrest County will soon join the ranks with other counties in the state to have full-time public defenders in the courtroom.

The county has operated with four part-time public defenders, but county supervisors have been working to make those positions full time.

"Beginning October 1, 2016, we will have full-time public defenders, four of them, rather than currently we have four part-time public defenders," Forrest County Board of Supervisors President David Hogan said.

According to the Office of State Public Defenders, Harrison, Hinds, Washington and Jackson Counties are the only other ones in the state with full-time public defenders.

"You've got five full-time prosecutors and four part-time public defenders, we've got a second judge now, and so these part-time public defenders are spending a lot more time in court," Forrest County Circuit Court Judge Bob Helfrich said.

Forrest County added the new judge position and Judge Jon Mark Weathers was sworn into office in January.

"With the full-time positions, hopefully it would move cases faster, we could get to the cases easier and get individuals out of jail quicker, which would save everybody a considerable amount of money," Helfrich said.

Forrest County Supervisors have set aside $290,000 from the 2016-2017 budget to divide among the four positions.

"The head public defender will make approximately $90,000 and the other three will make approximately 80% of that," Hogan said. "So we are looking at approximately a $100,000 increase in the public defender's budget, but we believe that that will be offset by a less number of inmates being in the jail."

Hogan added one of the biggest burdens to taxpayers is the cost of housing inmates in the Forrest County Jail.

"Approximate numbers, it's just under $15,000 to house an inmate in the Forrest County jail for a year, that's not including medical cost if they are sick, those costs can go through the roof," Hogan said.

Helfrich said, "You've got people sitting in jail with a charge that they were likely to get probation on or some minimal sentence, yet they are sitting in jail cause they cannot afford to bond out, and that population is being punished more than those that can bond out."

With four full-time positions, Hogan said this will allow them to spend more time in court and with the defendants to speed up the docket and court process.

"You would hope that the cases would be cleared quicker, and of course the public defenders would have more time to spend on each case to make sure that the individual is getting adequate representation," Helfrich said. "A number of times there will be conflicts where they have their private practice conflicts so we cannot schedule things, we have scheduling problems that will make it a lot easier to schedule things and get them moved through the court system."

Hogan said when the full-time process starts, the positions could be cut to three, depending on how the case loads work.

"The quicker that we can get those inmates either up to the penitentiary or out on probation or disposed of the less of a burden it will be on the Forrest County tax payers," Hogan said.