Bigger budget for public defenders

TRI-CITIES - More of your taxpayer dollars are going to defend people who can't afford an attorney. KEPR found out it's a combination of a poor economy and an increase in felonies and gang activity. We looked at the jump in costs paid by you.

Pasco Police tell Action News they've seen some decreases in violent crimes, but say it's hard to predict those "crimes of passion." It's months like December - with an 100% arrest rate for the recent shootings - that can cause a backlog of cases for public defenders.

Those key arrests are one reason the budget has increased for attorneys assigned to the indigent. In addition, a recent Supreme Court ruling put new limits on the caseload for public defenders in Superior Court.

This led to a boost in compensation to pay those contracted to handle the cases for the counties. Overall, Benton County allotted $300,000 more toward the indigent defense office. The office says they're anticipating that felony cases will increase.

Case filings have declined since 2011 for Benton County. But there were 300 additional cases involving people who can't pay for an attorney.

"While people were able to afford it before, less and less they're able to," said Indigent Defense Coordinator Eric Hsu.

While economics play a big factor for the rise in Benton County -- it's quite another story on the other side of the river.

With the recent jumps in cases, the Office of Public Defense is gearing up to defend *more criminals in the new year. More money was shifted toward Superior Court -- with an overall increase of $15,000.

Police expect the start of the Street Crimes Unit will bring more people to justice. And once trouble makers are locked up -- it could cost the courts less in the long run.

Offenders quality for public defenders through a screening process with a judge. People must fall below 125-percent of the federal poverty guidelines. Beyond that -- they have to prove an inability to afford defense.