Members of the Criminal Justice/Public Safety/Telecommunications Committee met with staff of the County Attorney's office to learn more about how the county's Assigned Counsel Program works. Chairman Darrin P. Ball (R,I -- Lincoln) said the meeting was prompted after a judge raised a questions about eligibility and compensation.
Supervisor James Goldstein (D,C,I -- Lebanon) began discussion by asking how rates for payment were established.
"Payment is set by statute," said Assistant County Attorney Tina Wayland-Smith. "Attorneys are paid $60 an hour for misdemeanors and $75 an hour for felonies."
County Attorney S. John Campanie explained that felony cases are more complicated, and the difference in remuneration is paying for expertise. He said in the private sector, the most competent lawyers would charge in excess of $200.
Wayland-Smith said the rates were raised a couple of years ago. She said the former rate was $25 per hour for out-of-court time and $40 for in-court time.
"As a result, we had no one who would step in and handle cases," Campanie said.
Wayland-Smith said she assumes Family Court and child custody cases are billed at $75, as that is the rate established for "all others" not specified under the misdemeanor or felony designations.
Eligibility for assigned counsel is one area of confusion, Wayland-Smith said.
"For criminal cases, we have a public defender's office," Wayland-Smith said. "All indigent criminal defendants are sent to the public defender's office. They decide if they are eligible. If they meet the 125-percent poverty income level, they are eligible."
If the public defender's office has a conflict, the cases are forwarded to the assigned counsel administrator, in this case Wayland-Smith, who then assigns the cases to participating attorneys.
"Problem arises that our plan, which is a written document adopted in 1965, makes no provision for family court," Wayland-Smith said. "The statute says that if there is no provision in the plan for family court, the judges are to assign attorneys, and the county pays for them."