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Oklahoma indigent defense struggles amid cuts

BY JULIE BISBEE Published: December 13, 2009

/> "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.

All state agencies have taken a 5 percent cut since revenues have come in under estimates for the fourth straight month. Sykes, a former Oklahoma County public defender, said the committee is looking at several options to infuse the state’s indigent defense system with the additional $1.7 million it needs to operate.

Much of the additional funds would be used to pay for legal work on appeals for noncapital cases, Robertson said.

The division that provides legal representation for defendants facing the death penalty is adequately funded, he said.

Salaried attorneys who work from offices across the state are seeing the number of cases they handle increase. During the 2009 budget year, which ended June 30, the state’s indigent defense office handled 39,369 cases.

Officials estimate that caseload will increase to about 44,100 by the end of this year, Robertson said.

Much of that growth is attributed to an increase in violent crimes and drug-related crimes, he said.

"In bad economic times, crime increases and so does the percentage of people accused being declared indigent,” he said.