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Sun, April 21

Committee formed to overhaul screening process for indigent defense<BR>

The Mohave County Board of Supervisors Monday approved a 13-member committee to look at revamping the screening process that determines whether indigent court defendants can pay for county-appointed attorneys.

Besides Public Defender Dana Hlavac, who initiated the committee, other members include Legal Defender Ron Gilleo; Chief Deputy County Attorney Jace Zack; Superior Court Clerk Virlynn Tinnell; Valerie Avila of the Superior Court automation division, Justice Court Administrator Paul Thomas, Superior Court judges Michael Centofanti and Steven Conn, and Larry Imus, Kingman justice of the peace.

Also on the committee are attorneys Eric Devany, Deborah Liverence and Ken Sondgeroth and Bruce Leeming of the county Health and Social Services Department.

Hlavac said the committee's first meeting is planned for June 18.

Members will determine how often they will meet, possibly once a month.

The committee is expected to report back to the county supervisors with recommendations by Oct.

1.

No general fund money would be used by the committee.

The committee had originally planned to include someone from the probation office as well as the county manager, he said.

One option the committee would consider is imposing a $25 fee that all criminal defendants would pay to the county public or legal defender's office for administrative functions, Hlavac said.

The fee, which is not imposed consistently, would cover the cost of time and expenses for attorneys and staff in opening a case file, obtaining disclosures and making future court dates for the defendant.

About $150,000 a year could be generated to the county if the $25 administrative fee is more strictly imposed on defendants, even if the fee is imposed on 80 percent of the cases in the public or legal defender's office.

Defendants who are indigent would have their $25 fee waived, Hlavac said.

Superior Court does not have a standardized screening method used to determine a defendant's ability to pay.

Court judges sometimes simply ask if the defendant can afford an attorney, and usually defendants say they cannot pay, Hlavac said.

Hlavac recommends that the defendant file a financial statement to verify their income status.

At a defendant's sentencing, judges usually do not assess a standardized reimbursement fee, making it hard to project court revenue.

In a review of about 15 percent of all cases assigned to the public defender's office, about 20 to 30 percent of the defendants could afford to reimburse the county $400 or more during their terms on probation.

Another 30 to 40 percent could afford a minimal fee of $150 to $250.

That leaves from 30 to 50 percent of the defendants who cannot afford legal services, he said.

With the collection of assessment fees on misdemeanor and felony cases, an additional $150,00 to $500,000 each year can be recovered back to the county.

An average court case costs the county about $700, Hlavac said.

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