MOUNT VERNON -- In an effort to retain quality public defense counsel, local court officials asked the Knox County Commissioners on Thursday to increase the hourly rate for in- and out-of-court services.
The current rate is $50 out of court and $60 in court. Knox County Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Wetzel and Knox County Prosecutor Chip McConville asked the commissioners to raise the rate to $75 per hour for all services.
For now, the higher rate applies only to first- and second-degree felony cases. The state's Public Defender Office suggested the $75 rate.
"It has been suggested to me that it will be hard (for attorneys) to come from out of county for $50 or $60 an hour," Wetzel told the commissioners. " If we go with what the state public defender recommended, it would be easier to get someone assigned. "
"The Knox County Bar [Association] does not have that many qualified to take F1s and F2s," McConville said. "They don't have the CLUs (continuing legal education units)."
Two local attorneys are qualified for F2 cases. None are qualified for F1s.
"I think the Bar here should try and get more of our local attorneys to try F1s and F2s," said Knox County Commissioner Teresa Bemiller.
Wetzel said the CLU requirements, along with lack of experience serving as lead counsel or co-counsel on F1s and F2s, are deterrents to attorneys becoming qualified. Additionally, he said many attorneys do not want to practice criminal law.
The state reimburses counties for public defender costs. Theoretically, it is to reimburse at 100 percent. Historically, it has reimbursed around 35 percent. Current reimbursement is around 42 percent.
Gov. Mike DeWine is attempting to increase the reimbursement rate to 100 percent and has allocated money toward that goal. As a result, many counties are increasing their hourly rates to $75, including Richland County. Several Richland County attorneys, in addition to Licking and Morrow counties, serve as public defenders for Knox County.
"Whatever we do is going to affect everybody across the board," Bemiller said. "They are telling us we have to be careful with this. It all hinges on how much has to come out of that (state public defender) fund."
Bemiller said the state has already adjusted reimbursement from 100 percent to 70 percent through June 2020.
"I think they are trying to let us know that if (raising rates to $75 an hour) happens all over the state, you are not going to get very good reimbursement," she said. "(Knox County Juvenile) Judge Jay Nixon has previously indicated he would be asking for $75 an hour."
Wetzel acknowledged Bemiller's concern.
"If everybody does this, the well is going to go dry faster. But I would say that if everybody does this and we don't, it's going to be much harder for me to get counsel to come from Richland County."
In addition to raising hourly rates to $75, the state recommends increasing the maximum cap on F1 and F2 cases to $8,000. Knox County's current cap is $3,000.
Wetzel and McConville agreed that raising the cap to $6,000 is appropriate. They also said the cap on life sentence and aggravated murder cases should be increased as well.
According to McConville, F1 and F2 cases comprise about 20 percent of the county's case load.