Roughly a year after Houston County Commissioners fired the former Public Defender Nick White, 13WMAZ is taking a closer look at the caseloads in Houston County.
White said he was fired for pointing out that the caseload in the Public Defender's office exceeded national standards and asking for more staff.
Houston County Commissioners have repeatedly declined to comment on why White was fired.
Now a year later, Jacob Reynolds examined the County's current caseload and why leaders say justice is not suffering in the County.
Claudia Meier is Houston County's new Chief Public Defender and started working in the PD’s office nearly 18 years ago.
The American Bar Association and the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommends that public defenders like her not work more than 150 felony cases at a time.
They argue that defendants' Sixth Amendment rights to a fair trial are violated if their lawyer doesn't have time to handle their case properly.
But Meier says a heavy workload is standard for Houston County.
“In fact, I don't remember seeing a caseload at 150 in the past 10 years, we've always been above the 150, at least the past 10 years,” Meier said.
All 8 attorneys in the Houston County Superior Court Public Defender's office are working more than 150 cases, according to documents 13WMAZ received through an open records request.
In fact, all except one are working more than 200 cases.
But, Meier says it doesn't make sense to apply the 150 standard to Houston County or other counties like it.
“You might spend a lot of time just driving to and from to see one client, where here I can walk across from the courthouse and see 5 or 6 individuals in one morning and come back and if I need to put them on that court docket I can have them brought over that afternoon, so things move a lot quicker cause the way things are set up,” Meier explained.
Meier dove deeper into the case numbers, saying each attorney has about 10 to 15 old cases that are close to being dismissed, are no longer active, or will never make it to a courtroom.
On top of that, Meier said violation of parole cases also inflate the numbers. The cases have to be handled in court within 45 days, and she says each attorney has about 10-20 of those at a time and they are often resolved quickly.
She said the County has an advantage since her office only handles Houston cases, and does not have to travel, since the Jail and Courthouse are across a courtyard from each other.
But that doesn't mean they don't need more help.
“Our jail list is increasing, it is. We have a lot of people being arrested every day, and you know everybody would like more time to work on their cases,” Meier told 13WMAZ.
County Chairman Tommy Stalnaker says lots of Houston County departments could use more help.
“Just about every department in this County has a tremendous workload and they're actually doing more without a lot more help and personnel,” Stalnaker said in his office.
He says Houston County could not hire any new staff for this budget year, in any department, due to their millage-rate cap. Houston County is one of two Georgia counties that operates under a the cap.
“Our ability to go out and say well we're going to raise the millage one mill, two mills, three mills, we don't have that ability. We can't do it,” Stalnaker said.
Meier did ask for an additional Superior Court attorney for this fiscal year, but Stalnaker says they didn't have the money.
Already, the Public Defender's office accounts for the highest budget in the County's court system of nearly two million. The entire budget for the County courts is just over 9 million, according to budget documents.
In June, the County entered two new contracts with conflict attorneys to help handle cases Meier's office can't. Those contracts are worth $85,000 each. Stalnaker says the County’s Superior Court made that request.
But even with the heavy caseload, Meier says justice is not suffering.
“The staff that we have go well above and beyond. Most attorneys are there well after 5 o'clock and when we have a trial calendar coming up we're taking files home and working on them. We do what needs to be done until we're comfortable that we know that case inside and out when we come into that courtroom,” Meier said.
Our investigation showed high caseloads aren't just a problem in Houston County. The city of Cordele was sued over a similar issue in 2014 and was required to hire more staff.
In Macon-Bibb County, there are 21 lawyers, including the Circuit Public Defender. The office covers cases from three counties, Bibb, Crawford, and Peach.
On average over the last five years, the attorneys have handled 236 cases per year each. On average, the office opens 158 cases a year and closes 119, according to an open records request. Those numbers include more than just felony cases.
In an email from Brandon Bullard, Chief Legal Officer for the Georgia Public Defender Council, he said over the last five years only roughly 1% of felony cases went to trial in the Macon circuit.
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