FRANKFORT — Kentucky’s public defenders are “workhorses” who need better pay, and more help, to represent the hundreds of thousands of indigent clients assigned to them each year, a state legislative panel heard today.
Funding was proposed by Governor Matt Bevin during the 2016 legislative session that would have funded salaries for 44 additional public defenders, Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy chief Ed Monahan told the Interim Joint Committee on Judiciary, but that funding was not in the final budget, he said.
“It would have allowed us to have a higher return on investment had we gotten the funding because cases would have been resolved sooner. Counties would have saved money on jail costs. Victims would have been happier because the case was resolved…,” Monahan told the committee. He asked lawmakers to reconsider beefing up funding for his agency by granting a 23 percent increase in pay to public defenders, as well as commonwealth’s attorneys and county attorneys over the next biennium and increasing the number of public defender offices from 33 to 57 statewide.
Even the most talented lawyer would struggle to handle an average of 460 new cases assigned to each of Kentucky’s public defenders in recent years, Monahan told the committee.
“We’re doing it,” he said, telling lawmakers that the agency’s total number of new trial cases is up 2.9 percent to nearly 158,000 cases with the state covering around $267 for each of those cases. “We ask for your help.”
He also asked lawmakers to increase funding for private attorneys who help with felony cases that public defenders aren’t ethically able to handle, saying those individuals only receive $327 on average per case. “They do it out of the goodness of their heart after we ask them to do it,” said Monahan.
Changes to criminal law are also being requested by Monahan and representatives from the Kentucky Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers who also testified before the committee. Both Monahan and the KACDL explained that they are seeking several changes to the law including reform to the state penal code, a body of statutes that Monahan called “out of whack in many different ways.” KACDL’s Rebecca DiLoreto said her group wants a penal code task force created to tackle comprehensive reform of the 42-year-old penal code language.
“We think it’s important to have the Judiciary chairs and those of you present involved in that. We also believe it’s important to have the expertise of law professors and practitioners,” said DiLoreto.
DiLoreto said work on the code will take time and change should come slowly, adding that KACDL agrees the next legislative session is “not the ideal time” to make major alterations to the code.
KACDL also expressed concerns with victim’s rights legislation known as Marsy’s Law that has passed in California and Illinois. The legislation, named for stalking and murder victim Marsalee Nicholas, proposes including a victim’s bill of rights in state constitutions— an action that requires a state’s voters to pass an amendment to their constitution. Similar legislation was sponsored by Judiciary Committee Co-Chair Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, under Senate Bill 175 last session, although the bill failed to pass.
Saying that Kentucky crime victims now have over 150 statutory rights and a codified bill of rights, KACDL President-Elect Amy Hannah argued against passage of Marsy’s Law legislation in Kentucky. A state constitution should only be amended in rare cases, she told lawmakers.
“The measure that is being proposed isn’t necessary,” she said. “We don’t change the constitution and have an amendment because one office or one specific case didn’t get handled appropriately. There are too many risks to the justice system.”
Westerfield said he must “respectfully disagree” with KACDL on Marsy’s Law. “But since I’m going to file it again… I’m sure we can debate it then, and so we will.”
Other testimony brought before the committee included a year-end review of the Juvenile Justice Oversight Council, a presentation titled “Marriage: Irretrievably Broken?” from Fayette County Family Court Judge Tim Philpot, a presentation on strengthening the state’s domestic pet protection laws from the Kentucky Citizens Against Animal Abuse and Domestic Violence, and testimony from Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, on his proposed legislation regarding operator’s license testing and arrest powers for fourth-degree battery in a hospital.