Delaware County: Commission to oversee newly created public defender's office

Jim Fischer
ThisWeek

Delaware County is getting a public defender's office.

The Delaware County commissioners have created a public defender commission to oversee the new office, including hiring the county’s first public defender and staff.

The office would provide legal representation to indigent persons charged with the commission of offenses in Delaware County.

Currently, the county contracts with local attorneys to represent defendants who are unable to pay for their own defense in court.

“As our county has grown, it has become apparent that the next step in transitioning is to create a public defender office. These initial public defender commission members will have a very important job in organizing this office and choosing its leader,” County commissioner Gary Merrell said.

Carlos Crawford

Commissioners approved the resolution establishing the new commission in September and recently named five attorneys as its initial members.

The Delaware County Common Pleas Court named two commission members: George B. Limbert, a Delaware County resident and attorney who serves as general counsel for Red Roof Inns, and Bryan R. Faller, a Delaware County resident and attorney who is a senior counsel for Honda North America.

The commissioners’ appointees are Carlos Crawford, a Delaware resident and attorney whose firm, Crawford Glanker LLC, is based in Delaware; Don Hunter, senior vice president of acquisitions and development at the Schottenstein Real Estate Group; and Melissa Knopp, an attorney who has worked with Delaware County courts to establish specialty dockets.

“We felt it was essential, especially in creating a new commission and office, to find people who understand not only how to run a legal organization but also how to build it in a way that safeguards the interests of our taxpayers,” county commissioner Jeff Benton said.

The group met in late October for the first time. Crawford, who also has served as appointed counsel under the current system for the past four years, will serve as its chair.

Crawford said the current process can leave courts scrambling to have attorneys present for bond hearings and other appearances, particularly early in the process after an arrest. He said the goal is to provide better, more consistent legal representation to those who can’t afford to hire an attorney.

“It serves both the person and the court” to have reliable representation, Crawford said.

“Having a fully functioning commission and a full-time public defender and staff will make it easier to coordinate the assignment of cases,” county administrator Mike Frommer said.

The decision came after many months of analyzing whether Delaware County, with an estimated population of 217,000, had grown to the point where it made financial sense for the county to run its own public defender office. In 2019, 2,973 indigent-defense cases were assigned out, resulting in billings of $1,063,463 to the county.

The state reimburses counties as much as 90% of the cost for appointed counsel, Frommer said, so the county’s judges approached the commissioners about increasing the hourly rate for those attorneys. That conversation led to the decision to instead create the commission and hire a public defender.

“Our caseloads are not necessarily increasing, but the rates we can offer to appointed counsel can make finding an attorney more challenging,” Frommer said. “(A public defender’s office) can provide a smoother assignment of a case and representation can be much more consistent.”

“Having a group of public defenders who are dedicated to Delaware County courts will no doubt strengthen an already high-functioning public defense system in our county,” Delaware County Common Pleas Judge James Schuck said in a statement.

Initially, the county’s new public defender office will aim to manage more than half of the public defender caseload for Delaware County, Frommer said, with the courts continuing to appoint private counsel to represent the rest. Over time, the goal is to add several assistant public defenders to the office’s staff so that the office can handle the vast majority of cases.

A budget has not yet been determined by the commissioners for the new office.

The first task of the public defender commission will be to advertise for, interview and hire a public defender. Frommer said he expects that person to take the lead in building a staff and oversee the work of the office, “all at the discretion of the commission.”

Crawford said he expects his experience in both the legal field and in business to be beneficial in the process. Prior to becoming a criminal-defense attorney, he worked as an engineer for both Whirlpool and General Electric, he said.

“I’ve done budgets, supervised staff and dealt with payroll and other human-resource issues,” he said. “We plan to structure the public defender’s office in a way that serves the indigent population and do so in a fiscally responsible manner.”

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