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Public defender's plan reduces office's spending

ALBANY, Ga. -- When Chief Public Defender Leisa Johnson came to Dougherty County officials with what she said would be a more fiscally responsible plan to provide defense for indigent State Court defendants, they were more than willing to give her plan a try.

The results, according to County Administrator Richard Crowdis, have so far been everything the county could hope for.

"Lisa was able to cut $33,357 from her budget by implementing her plan," Crowdis said. "I knew when she came to us with her proposal she would do everything she could to cut costs. She always comes in on budget, under budget or, if she's over budget, there's a very good reason."

The Public Defender's Office is charged by the state with handling cases in Juvenile and Superior Court only, but Johnson made a case to county officials to add State Court defendants to her office's caseload. A judicial "perfect storm" motivated Johnson to devise the plan.

"About the time (State Court) Judge (Victoria) Darrisaw took office, two attorneys in our office were resigning," Johnson told the Dougherty County Commission's Finance Committee at a meeting Monday morning. "We were being used primarily as a training ground for first-year attorneys (who were state employees under the previous system used by the county). They would come in, get some trial experience and leave.

"We were getting little return on our investment."

Johnson worked with Darrisaw to devise a system whereby, rather than hiring young attorneys to serve indigent defendants in State Court, the work is contracted out to three private attorneys.

"By having three attorneys (under contract), they are able to maintain their private practices and still provide indigent defense for what a lot of times is a revolving door -- often the same people doing the same kind of crimes," Johnson said. "One or two attorneys can't represent someone who's a defendant one minute, a victim the next and the next minute a witness."

Crowdis said Johnson has been proactive in working with the county to keep costs down.

"She had a different perspective on the recession when it hit in 2008," the county administrator said. "She'd been through it already while working in the Washington, D.C., area."

Johnson, who has served as chief public defender in the county since 2004, said cutting the state employees and contracting indigent work is in line with her overall plan to maintain costs.

"When I took over this office in 2004, we had a $1.4 million indigent defense budget," she said. "I've been determined to get that number down."

The Public Defender Office's current budget is $1,001,578.