ALLEN COUNTY, Ind. (WANE) – They take on thousands of cases a year and are tasked with helping some of the community’s most vulnerable people. But, now Allen County is facing a lawsuit over its public defender system.
To put it simply, the lawsuit takes issue with the excessive caseload in the system and the lack of resources. A man named Calvin Wilson is suing Allen County, the Allen County Council, the Allen County Board of Commissioners, and the Allen County Public Defender Board. Wilson got charged with battery last July, but didn’t meet with his public defender until after his hearing.
“We chose him because he is very representative of what happens to people who are unable to afford their own private attorney and are charged with a misdemeanor crime. Mr. Wilson faces up to a year incarceration, thousands of dollars in fines at the end of it, has only had brief meetings with his public defender, has not been able to prompt his public defender to research his case, either the facts or the law. He is left with no recourse because the public defender is the only person he can ask to represent his case,” Wilson’s private attorney David Frank said.
During the last two and a half years, the lawsuit claims four public defenders took on more than 6,000 misdemeanor cases.
“It is a very dire situation,” Frank said. “You’re looking at a group of people who already have little power, and you’re further neglecting them.”
To put that into perspective, part-time public defenders aren’t supposed to take on more than 150 cases in a year.
“I think it’d be difficult enough to just meet that many people in that period of time let alone provide them any sort of semblance of justice,” Frank said. “It is objectively true that it is physically impossible, and I stress physically impossible, for public defenders to provide even basic representation to clients.”
Wilson’s attorney said the county receives some reimbursement for felony representation, but nothing for misdemeanors. Only one to three percent of the public defender budget goes to misdemeanor attorneys.
“The lawsuit is entirely necessary. The county has known about this problem literally for over ten years. It’s documented, but they’ve refused to provide finances, resources, everything necessary to provide even a basic level of representation to poor people charged with misdemeanor crimes,” Frank said. “We’re not asking that everybody be represented by Clarence Darrow. We’re saying that give them the basic minimum, provide them the basic standard of legal services to begin with, that’s all we’re asking.”
Frank said the county has known about this for far too long to not take action to fix it.
“I don’t know why that is. I’m not here to say why that is. I’m sure it’s difficult to go out there and say hey, we need more money for people that might be perceived as just petty criminals. Who cares that they’re facing a year? That’s not that big of a deal. Well, it’s not that big of a deal until you’re that person or that person is your family member or your friend. At that point, you could and you would see very much that effective legal representation is necessary and moreover, the county is obligated to provide that under the state and federal constitutions,” Frank said.
Frank said having resources so thinly stretched is a disservice to the people who need public defenders and the community at large.
“We would like to start here in Allen County documenting this wrongdoing and bringing attention to people because it’s a problem. The fact is there are people in jail every day in Allen County that don’t need to be. That’s not doing anyone good. That’s not doing them good. It’s not doing the community good,” Frank said. “We’re talking about people’s freedom. We’re talking about people’s liberty. We’re talking about people losing their jobs, their homes. We’re talking about people being locked in a cage for extended periods of time. The least they can do is provide them an attorney before that happens to them.”
Frank said this problem is not specific to Allen County and can be found across Indiana.
“Based on preliminary research, this can be filed in any county outside of Marion County because there is no effective or real public defender agency outside Marion County. That’s completely unacceptable,” Frank said. “We just believe it’s the system that’s broken. It’s the system that’s failing. It’s the system that will not and cannot provide the legal counsel necessary for poor people charged with misdemeanor crimes in the county.”
Frank wants to make it very clear this is an issue with the justice stystem, and not meant to be an attack on the defendants.
“What we’re trying to do is get them the resources they need so that they can do their jobs because they’re more than capable of doing that. But, right now, they don’t have the staff, they don’t have the money, they don’t have the support staff- all of which is documented in our case, they have none of that. That is all the things they need to represent their clients,” Frank said. “The sooner we can resolve this, the sooner we can help people out, the better.”
NewsChannel 15 reached out to the defendants in this case, but they declined to comment since it’s pending litigation.