Indiana Public Defense

Public defense issues and developments in Indiana

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Currently Indiana's 92 counties each individually decide the type of public defense system they will operate in their jurisdiction. Counties may choose to participate in the state's public defense reimbursement program and receive reimbursement for up to 40% of their expenses for felony public defense costs by agreeing to meet certain operational guidelines. However, even if a jurisdiction opts into the state system, they receive no compensation for any of the costs associated with misdemeanor cases. Jurisdictions who opt not to participate, retain full control over decisions regarding infrastructure, funding, and oversight. Nearly one-third of Indiana counties opt not to participate in the state reimbursement program.

With concerns about the state’s patchwork system, the Sixth Amendment Center conducted an evaluation of the state’s public defense system. Their resulting 2017 report raised significant concerns regarding structure, funding, and oversight. In response the Indiana Public Defender Commission established a Task Force on Public Defense. The 16-member group included representatives from across the criminal justice system.

In an effort examine the current impacts of Indiana’s system on initial hearings and misdemeanor cases, NACDL representatives undertook 2 weeks of court watching. Observing misdemeanor case representation in 10 different counties across the state, NACDL discovered a number of questionable and concerning practices. These observations, along with NACDL's experiences studying public defense delivery systems, formed the basis of its letter to the Indiana Public Defense Task Force

After a year of study, which included meetings, presentations by various stakeholder groups, reviews of documents and data, and a 6 stop, state-wide public listening tour, in August 2018 the Task Force issued its report. Among the Report’s conclusions were:

  • Access to counsel was uneven across the state
  • Misdemeanor caseloads were excessive in many places
  • There is need for increased defender training
  • There is a need for increased access to investigators, social workers, and interpreters to support defender work
  • There is insufficient staff for the Commission to enforce existing standards
  • These findings are guiding legislative efforts to bring about infrastructure changes to the state’s public defense system.

NACDL's Letter to the Task Force Recommending Systemic Reforms View the Task Force’s materials, meeting minutes, and listening tour transcripts 

Legislative Reforms in Indiana

Passed: Indiana SB 488: Authorizes the Indiana Public Defender Commission to create guidelines for the development of regional public defense offices, paving the way for smaller counties to aggregate their resources to sustain a public defender office. 

The PDC also sought legislation to provide funding for misdemeanor reimbursements and the creation of a state-wide appellate office. Despite strong support from a number of organizations, both of those were unsuccessful in the 2019 legislative session. Legislative priorities for the Indiana Public Defender Commission

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