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Oklahoma indigent defense struggles amid cuts

BY JULIE BISBEE Published: December 13, 2009
Next month, Joe Robertson will be in a courtroom in McAlester representing a client in a mental competency hearing.

It will be the first time in recent memory that the executive director of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System has represented a client in court. But as the agency tries to do more with less, it’s a necessity.

Like other state agencies, the system has seen its budget cut as the state weathers an economic downturn. For the system, it means less money to hire private attorneys and a burgeoning caseload for staff attorneys.

The agency, which provides legal defense for people facing criminal charges, says it needs more than $1 million to keep providing services for people a judge has determined can’t afford an attorney.

Beefing up the funding could mean a decrease in state funds to Legal Aid of Oklahoma, said members of a House and Senate subcommittee on public safety and the judiciary.

"Legal Aid is totally optional. It’s a charity,” said Sen. Anthony Sykes, R-Moore, co-chairman of the committee. "We are not constitutionally obligated to do that. In a perfect budget situation both Legal Aid and indigent defense would have equal funding. But if we don’t provide legal aid there’s no federal penalty. If we don’t provide indigent defense a federal judge can issue an order and tell us what we have to do. Right now we’re triaging and prioritizing.”

Sykes said lawmakers attempted to use money from a fund that goes to Legal Aid of Oklahoma to help pay for the state’s indigent defense system.

"We were blocked at the executive level from doing that,” Sykes said.

Paul Sund, spokesman for Gov. Brad Henry, said the funding levels for the indigent defense system and Legal Aid were part of the budget agreement between Republican legislative leaders and the governor earlier this year.

"I don’t think the parties involved wanted to take money already earmarked for legal aid for seniors and working families and give it to the state agency charged with representing criminal defendants,” Sund said.

With state revenues down, lawmakers are looking for ways to plug budget holes.


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