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City defenders have ‘record high’ cases

Contract lawyers to handle overflow of indigent clients

Beginning Monday, the Tucson Public Defender’s Office won’t accept out-of-custody indigent defendants, citing a “record high” caseload.

The cases will go to contract lawyers, who are paid $500 a case compared to $310 for public lawyers, Chief Public Defender Chuck Davies said Friday.

“This is an absolute last resort,” Davies said. “We tried everything, but we have to think of our clients and the attorneys’ ethical obligations.”

The office’s caseload is 2,285 cases, Davies said.

Judge Tony Riojas, who presides over City Court, said Friday he wants to know more about the caseload, such as how many cases are quickly dismissed, to assess the situation.

Davies said soaring crime rates and the city’s Human Resources Department are to blame for the glut of cases.

“The reason we’ve received for not being allowed to fill positions is that we have some budget problems,” Davies said, “but in tough economic times, the crime rate doesn’t go down; it goes up.”

Human Resources fails to quickly fill vacancies, which pushed the average caseload above 100 for about 20 defenders, he said.

Davies’ last day in the office was Friday. On Tuesday, he begins a judgeship in Marana Municipal Court.

Davies hoped the city would hire an entry-level lawyer to handle his caseload, but the position will go unfilled, he said.

Human Resources Director Cindy Bezaury said two lawyers were hired this week and the office has a list of qualified candidates for other vacancies.

Starting Monday, Davies said, about 100 out-of-custody cases a week will be sent to eight lawyers contracted by the city.

The court budgeted $94,000 this year for contract lawyers, $12,000 of which has been used, assistant court administrator Chris Hale said.

Court officials will ask the city if more lawyers can be contracted, Hale said.

“Fortunately, these are misdemeanor cases and they’re easier to handle than felonies,” said Paul Gattone, one of the contract attorneys.

“Still, the implications are often the same as felonies: a criminal record, jail time, fines. They have to be addressed with the same seriousness as felony representation.”

By law, indigent defendants must be represented by an attorney.

“Accepting more cases than can be properly handled may result not only in reversals for failing to adequately represent clients, but also in disciplinary action (for attorneys),” the Arizona Supreme Court ruled in 1984.

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