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Ohio's Public Defenders Hopeful That New Budget Will Bring Relief

Franklin County Courthouse
Adora Namigadde

Although Ohio legislators failed to hammer out budget differences by Sunday's deadline, resorting instead to a stopgap funding measure, at least one group is certain to be happy with the eventual two-year budget: public defenders.

In their individual budget proposals, both the Ohio House and Senate agreed to a large increase in funding for public defenders’ offices, which provide what’s officially known as indigent defense.

Gov. Mike DeWine’s proposed budget would have increased annual funding for indigent defense to $60 million. The House and Senate each agreed to add another $35 million per year. 

It’s a welcome boost for offices that have seen workloads increase by about 3% every year, says John Leutz, legal counsel with the County Commissions Association of Ohio.

Leutz says public defenders’ offices have been increasingly stretched since 1963, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the fundamental right to counsel is required under the 14th Amendment. They’ve been even busier in recent years, Leutz says.

“The opiate crisis, the drug crisis, and the fact that we’re seeing many more people come through the court system who are indigent” are all factors, Leutz says.

Immediately after the 1963 decision, Ohio opted to require counties to provide indigent defense and promised to reimburse counties for 50% of the cost. The state adopted a new court fee to fund the initiative.

When that revenue started falling short, Leutz says, the state moved to the current model where they appropriate reimbursement money during the budget process.

While Ohio’s public defender system started under the state promise of 50% reimbursement, that’s shrank considerably in recent years. Data from the County Commissioners Association of Ohio show the state reimbursement rate to counties has averaged approximately 38% over the last 10 years and hit its record low of 26.1% in the 2009 fiscal year.

In 2018, counties were reimbursed at 42% and paid $80.3 million of the $146.1 million system cost. A 42% reimbursement rate is expected for the fiscal year that ended Sunday evening.