Utah County, which already is anticipating serious budget woes next year, is going to have to come up with a lot more money to make its 1990 public defender contract attractive.
"We're basically subsidizing it now because of the time it takes," said public defender Michael Esplin of the firm of Aldrich, Nelson, Weight & Esplin. "We can't afford to do it anymore."The firm has a $200,000 contract this year to provide attorney services to those who can't afford a defense attorney. That figure represents a $25,000 raise over what the firm was paid in 1988.
But $200,000 isn't adequate, Esplin said. "I think it should be doubled."
He said a tremendous increase in workload the past few years, especially in the number of sexual offenders his firm has defended, has made the public defender contract unattractive. The cases are difficult to defend because they require additional involvement and time, especially in recommending and preparing for sentencing.
"They're not committed to providing quality representation," Esplin said in reference to what the county wants to pay for public defender service.
Commissioner Malcolm Beck, however, said the commission's main concern is to provide quality representation for defendants even though next year's county budget will be tight.
Esplin said his firm, which has had the contract for the past eight years, doesn't plan to bid for it again even if more money is offered next year.
Bids for the public defender contract will be accepted in June to give the firm landing the contract several months to prepare to take over the work from Esplin's firm. If bids are prohibitively high, the county might consider providing in-house defender services.
"They did that once before, but we really don't want to get back into it,"
Beck said. Nevertheless, the county plans to determine what the costs would be of providing its own defender services for comparison with bids from outside attorney firms.
Eight years ago, Esplin said, public defender services required only three attorneys working part time. Now, however, seven attorneys are needed, and the work is no longer part-time.
"We're in as many as five or six courts a day," Esplin said. "I love criminal law, but at this point I can do better in private practice."
He said the $200,000 public defender contract "figures to be less than $20 an hour. Privately, I charge $100 an hour. And I get it."