Local News

Requests for public defenders on the rise in Wake

Posted May 26, 2009 6:10 p.m. EDT
Updated May 26, 2009 6:54 p.m. EDT

— The number of criminal defendants seeking court-appointed attorneys in Wake County has nearly tripled this year from the same time last year.

Wake County Public Defender Bryan Collins said Tuesday that his office was handling 10,417 pending cases from January to April this year; last year, it handled 3,663 during the same period.

"We simply cannot handle the crush of cases ourselves," Collins said.

The Wake County Public Defender's Office has 24 assistant public defenders and an administrative assistant.

Collins said that, on average, attorneys who handle felony cases are assigned to as many as 200 at one time. Those handling misdemeanor crimes work on about 450.

Cases they cannot handle are assigned to private attorneys, who get paid $75 an hour for their services.

"Well, the tax payers have to pay for it, ultimately," Collins said. "Folks have a constitutional right to an appointed lawyer, if they can't afford their own lawyer in a criminal case."

State taxpayers will spend about $125 million in 2009 on criminal defendants who can't afford their own attorneys. To qualify, they must submit an affidavit providing their income and their reasons for needing a court-appointed attorney. Judges grant or deny the requests.

Although numbers aren't available as to why defendants ask for public defenders, Collins suggested that the rise in requests was due to an increase in crimes being committed and more defendants facing the tough economy.

The state does recoup some of the costs through judgments. If a defendant is found guilty, he or she is required to pay back the state.

In 2008, North Carolina spent about $111 million on public defenders and private attorneys. It collected about $9.9 million – about 11 percent of expenses.

About $4 million of that was garnished from state tax refunds.