Supervisors Commit To Full Time Public Defender

Right now, people charged with a crime in Harrison County who can't afford an attorney, are represented by one of 17 private lawyers. The county budgets $650,000 a year to pay them.

For $235,000 more a year the county could have a full time public defender.

The circuit judges who met with the Harrison County Supervisors say it will cost more to set up a public defender office, but they say the savings will far exceed the expense.

"You are going to, in actuality, save money from the jail standpoint. It's a miracle that we have not seen some type of lawsuit from some of these people who are sitting out there unrepresented. The State of Mississippi, i.e. the county, has an obligation to bring these people to speedy trial," Judge Steve Simpson says.

The judges say that can happen with a full time public defender because that office will be able to represent poor prisoners full time. Most inmates can't afford their own attorney.

Right now the private attorneys juggle their workload to serve as contract public defenders.

"We need to move forward with a more progressive method of deciding who is going to represent our indigent defendants," Judge Jerry Terry says.

The supervisors support the idea and say they'll try to work quickly to find the money, while at the same time preparing next year's budget.

"Rome wasn't built in a day and we don't expect this to work overnight. But we do expect this to be a big first step in regards to improving our criminal justice system here in Harrison County," District 4 Supervisor William Martin says.

By law, the county must advertise for the public defender position. Then, the senior circuit judge will appoint someone from the applicants.

The office will be fully staffed with seven assistants.

Hinds, Washington and Jackson Counties have full time public defenders.