Judge seeks a raise for Oktibbeha's public defenders

By: 
Faith Lifer
Staff Writer

Sometimes lawyers don’t only fight legal battles. In Oktibbeha County, public defenders are also up against high caseloads, new court regulations and negative stigmas.

In Monday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Circuit Court Judge Jim Kitchens came before Oktibbeha’s representatives regarding the county’s public defender salary, which is currently $37,040.

“What I’m here to talk to you about today is to once again seek a raise for our public defenders,” Kitchens said. “They do an excellent job. They work hard to deal with cases that are not necessarily easy to deal with.”

POLL: Do you think public defenders in Oktibbeha Co. deserve a pay raise?

Oktibbeha County’s three public defenders are Benjamin Lang, Stephanie Mallette and Mark Williamson.

“My concern is, I think it’s been at least 13 years since they’ve had a raise. And actually, it may be longer than that,” Kitchens said.

According to Kitchens, W-2 forms he was given from one of the public defenders showed the attorney had not received a raise since 2006.

Another public defender told Kitchens it had been 18 years since the attorney had received a raise from the county.

LARGE CASE NUMBERS

Kitchens also addressed the low number of public defenders in Oktibbeha County.

“In Lowndes County, I have five public defenders, and we could probably use six,” Kitchens said.

“Here, we’ve made do with three,” Kitchens said of Oktibbeha County. “Really we could probably use four or  five.”

According to the United States Census Bureau, as of 2015, Lowndes County had a population of around 59,000 residents, whereas Oktibbeha County had a population of around 50,000 residents.

The low number of public defenders leads to higher caseloads.

Williamson had 31 penalty cases on his docket for Oktibbeha County that went to trial for the July term, and he received nine new felony cases over the past month. One of his cases is a capital murder case.

Mallette had 35 penalty cases on her docket for Oktibbeha County that went to trial for the July term, and she received 12 new felony cases over the past month.

Lang had 29 penalty cases on his docket for Oktibbeha County that went to trial for the July term, and he received eight new felony cases over the past month.

Kitchens noted that the case docket numbers are subject to change.

"They will be picking up new cases probably from now until we’re back here in October,” Kitchens said, referring to the upcoming October Circuit Court term.

“I didn’t realize they had so many cases going on at one time,” District 5 Supervisor Joe Williamson said. “That’s amazing.”

Kitchens said on any given Monday, the public defenders are likely to have at least three or four cases on each judge’s docket.

In addition to their other cases, Kitchens said capital murder cases are almost a lifetime commitment.

“It’s something that follows you forever,” Kitchens said of capital murder cases. “Unfortunately, we have some of those on the docket here.”

According to Sixteenth Circuit Court of Mississippi’s District Attorney Office Investigator Steven Woodruff, from July 1, 2017 to June 30, approximately 478 cases were presented to the grand jury, with 132 violent crimes.

Woodruff thinks at least 70 percent of those cases are given to public defenders.

“The public defenders are the arms and legs of that system. They are extremely overworked. I don’t know how they do it,” Woodruff said. “They are extremely underpaid.”

NEW COURT REGULATIONS

There are also new court regulations in Oktibbeha County that leave the public defenders with more work.

“Back in the earlier days,” Kitchens said. “The public defenders would usually do Justice Court on Tuesdays and Municipal Court on Thursdays.”

However, the two days public defenders used to spend in court have now turned into four days a week in court.

“Now, because of the new rules,” Kitchens said. “We pretty much go on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Monday, whereas they used to go two days in the week.”

Within 48 hours of being arrested, a defendant is allowed an initial appear- ance where the defendant is informed of the charges against him or her, whether or not the defendant is entitled to bail, and the judge will ask the defendant if he or she wishes to hire a lawyer.

Kitchens thinks that close to 70 to 90 percent of defendants are appointed public defenders as opposed to hiring their own lawyer.

Now, after the initial appearance, the defendant is entitled to a preliminary hearing, which didn’t use to be the case.

“There’s a lot more responsibility, and to get somebody with the training and expertise to be able to do those cases,” Kitchens said. “We’re lucky to have the three that we’ve got.”

District 4 Supervisor Bricklee Miller addressed the indication of both the high number of cases combined with the new regulations.

“Are you saying too, because of the increase in cases, that the attorneys are not able to supplement with other cases for income?” Miller asked.

“They do, they lose some job opportunities by doing this job, and we’re lucky to have them,” Kitchens said.

NEGATIVE STIGMA

Kitchens also believes public defenders lose additional case opportunities because there is a stigma with being a public defender.

“Unfortunately, there is this stigma attached to being a public defender and people think, ‘well, he (or she) must not be a very good lawyer,’” Kitchens said.“No, it’s just the opposite.”

Kitchens also believes public defenders have an advantage in the courts because they work with the county judges more often.

For example, Kitchens referenced a public defender who has worked with him for 22 years.

“He knows me forward and backward. He knows the cases that tend to bother me, and he knows the ones that I might be not as bothered by if that makes sense.” Kitchens said.

Regardless, Kitchens believes the public defenders are capable, even to the point where he would hire one for himself.

“They’re all good trial lawyers, and quite frankly, if I needed a lawyer or was in trouble with the law, I would hire any one of the three of them,” Kitchens said.

Board Attorney Rob Roberson also chimed in with Kitchens.

“We have some of the finest public defenders that you could ask for,” Roberson said. “I’ve worked with these people 15 years, and I’m telling you, you couldn’t ask for a better group of public defenders.”

SALARY

“I know money’s tight, but it’s been at least since 2006 since they’ve had a raise,” Kitchens said. “And they don’t do it only for the money, but they do give up some business, like Ms. Miller said, by being public defenders.”

Currently, the salary for a county public defender is $37,040 a year with retirement and health insurance.

“We appreciate that,” Kitchens said of the current salary. “But being able to attract good people to come do this is getting harder and harder.”

“I don’t want to get to a point in time where we can’t get people within the county who want to take these jobs,” Kitchens added.

Kitchens asked that this fiscal year, the public defender salary be increased by $5,000.

“I think that’s fair, considering it’s probably been 18 years (since they’ve gotten a raise),” Kitchens said.

After the coming fiscal year’s $5,000 increase, Kitchens asked that the public defenders be given an additional $2,500 to give them what the county attorney is paid.

“Because they’re going to be just as busy as the county attorney with all of these preliminary hearings,” Kitchens justified.

“If you have someone in the county who’s in trouble, who doesn’t have the money to hire a lawyer, you want to have somebody who’s fair, who’s going to do a good job,” Kitchens said. “And they do.”

“I can tell you, in this county, you’ve got three people who, when they walk into a courtroom to try their case, I know they know what they’re doing, and I know they care about what they are doing,” Kitchens added.

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