QUEENSBURY -- A number of county public defender’s offices in the region are discussing sharing services in an effort to keep bills down for lawyers the counties have to hire when defenders have conflicts of interest.
Warren County Public Defender John Wappett sought permission Monday from the county Board of Supervisors Criminal Justice Committee to explore an intermunicipal agreement with other counties that could save the counties thousands of dollars in legal fees.
The counties often have to hire lawyers to represent indigent defendants when they have a conflict of interest that keeps the public defender’s office from representing those clients. The most common conflict of interest occurs in cases where there are multiple defendants, because the public defender’s office can only represent one defendant in a case.
Public defender’s offices in each county would trade off handling conflict cases in their counties.
“It helps everybody,” Wappett said. “We can do these cases for each other a lot less expensively than private attorneys.”
It’s similar to the arrangement that district attorneys in the region have for cases where they have conflicts of interest and require special prosecutors, said Horicon Supervisor Ralph Bentley, chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee.
Wappett said discussion about the issue began recently when Albany County Public Defender James Milstein’s office was saddled with representing nearly 100 defendants in a large gangs-and-drugs indictment in Albany. Milstein reached out to other public defender’s offices to see if they could help with arraignments, Wappett said.
Wappett said he did not believe he could help without approval of the county or having an intermunicipal agreement that would allow for insurance issues and travel costs to be ironed out.
Wappett said he has discussed the issue with Milstein and Saratoga County Public Defender, and also planned to explore the idea with Washington County Public Defender Michael Mercure.
Mercure said Monday he would be willing to listen to a proposal to share services between the counties, but has yet to be approached about it.
“The concept is interesting,” he said.
It was unclear Monday how much Warren County spends for so-called “conflict defenders” to handle cases where the public defender’s office opts out.
Warren County has budgeted $697,000 for its assigned counsel program this year, which pays for the lawyers who are assigned to handle conflict cases as well as the salary of a program administrator, county Administrator Paul Dusek said.
In 2008, the county was able to cap those costs at $153,000 by retaining two law firms to handle the conflict cases, Dusek said. But a 2009 state court decision forced a change to the way the programs were run and greatly increased the costs.