Franklin County

Public defenders' status still in doubt

FRANKFORT — The state's public defenders are still unsure if they will have a job come May.

Public Advocate Ed Monahan said Monday that he has met with members of Gov. Steve Beshear's staff and they are still trying to determine if Beshear has the authority to appropriate more money to the agency that has a constitutional mandate to represent poor criminal defendants.

The agency warned state leaders earlier this year that unless the agency got more money soon the state's public defenders would likely be out of money by the end of April. That means the agency would have to shut its doors and the criminal justice system would come to a halt.

The House and Senate had tacked on $4.7 million for the state's public defenders in a budget "clean up" bill, but that bill died after the House decided to follow its rules and not take up any new legislation the final two days of the session, which concluded Thursday.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and other legislative leaders said last week that funding for the state's public defenders was a necessary government expense and the governor had the authority to give the agency additional money without legislative approval.

Monahan said his office was supplying additional financial information to the governor's office and they were hoping that they would have an answer by Friday. Some of the financial information included how much money the agency would need to continue to operate until July 1, when the new fiscal year begins.

"I remain hopeful," Monahan said of the negotiations, noting that Beshear is a lawyer and understands the importance of public defenders in the state's criminal courts.

But complicating matters is a lawsuit filed by the Department of Public Advocacy against the state saying it was inadequately funded. A Franklin Circuit Court judge dismissed the lawsuit but the case is on appeal.

Jay Blanton, a spokesman for Beshear, said the governor is hoping the issue can be resolved quickly.

"The governor considers the public defenders to be a vital cog in the criminal justice system and we are moving as quickly as possible toward some resolution," he said.