Chatham County Commission approves funding for Public Defender’s, DA’s Office

Chatham County Commission approves funding for Public Defender’s, DA’s Office

CHATHAM COUNTY, Ga. (WTOC) - Chatham County’s attorneys with the Public Defender’s Office and District Attorney’s Office are overloaded with cases.

That leads to case delays and people sitting in jail longer costing taxpayers. Both offices are making requests for funding to add new attorneys to their staff.

The DA’s Office is looking to create three positions; two assistant district attorneys and a legal secretary.

The Public Defender’s Office wants funding for two full-time assistant public defenders and a part-time senior public defender.

With a unanimous vote, much needed funding was approved.

But the approval had been delayed for weeks, with commissioners asking to see more information from the DA’s Office and Public Defender’s Office detailing why they need more than a combined half a million dollars for new salaries.

“You know, we’ve had an increase in cases in Chatham County, which means there’s more people at the jail, which means it takes more cases going through the system. And we just need more people to process these cases," Chatham County District Attorney Meg Heap said.

Information given to Commissioners from Heap’s office revealed the assistant district attorney to case ratio is six attorneys to 1,400 cases.

The Public Defender's Office is feeling the same burden.

According to information they pulled for commission, the case load for each of their assistant public defenders exceeds the American Bar Association recommendation by over 100 cases.

The top Public Defender for the County, Todd Martin, said “With the extra attorneys we’re going to have, we are going to be able to get more people out of jail more quickly. Every person whose in jail, depending on which numbers you hear, can be between $65 and $80 a day. And that adds up really quickly. So that’s going to be a huge savings to the taxpayers.”

Martin did point out that with his office, the emphasis is on quality of defense, not just shuffling people through the system as quickly as possible.

In the findings presented by the District Attorney’s Office, they put the cost per day to house each inmate here at $86 a day. That’s just over $10,000 for a third of a year.

As of October 2019, there are more than 22,000 open cases in the Chatham County Court System. That includes mostly criminal and some traffic cases.

More than 50 percent are misdemeanor cases, like first time DUI offenders. Felonies make up 34 percent of the caseload.

To move those cases, it won't just take more prosecutors and public defenders as funded Friday. But it could require more court staffing.

According to information from the DA's Office, one more full-time judge is needed in state court. That's the court that handles misdemeanor cases. Right now, there are three judges in state court.

Although, the numbers indicate another state court judge is needed, there has not been an official request for one.

Heap told said those discussions are happening, but she doesn’t expect a formal request anytime soon. Right now, she said many at the courthouse want to see how additional prosecutors and defenders can improve the situation.

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