Jeffco Public Defender System Will Leave Legal Aid Intact

The role and mission of the Legal Aid Society of Birmingham, Inc. is not expected to change drastically with the opening of the Jefferson County Public Defender's office later this year.

Legal Aid Society lawyers and staff will still represent children in the Family Court of Jefferson County and adult indigent defendants in several of the county’s municipal courts.

However, Legal Aid Society lawyers working in the state adult courts may not continue when Jefferson County Assistant Public Defenders are ready to assume responsibility for indigent representation there.

Committees tasked with selecting the first Public Defender for Jefferson County under the new system are continuing their work with the hope that a public defender can be hired by the end of 2012.

The public defender will have responsibility for organizing and staffing an office of some 40 professionals to handle Jefferson County state court indigent criminal defense in all but potential death penalty cases. Those cases will be handled by private experienced criminal defense lawyers whose focus is on capital case defense representation.

Criminal defense in Alabama has been the subject of much study over the years. The Spangenberg Group of consultants has been studying aspects of the state justice system for more than a decade. In 2000, at the request of state officials, Spangenberg recommended the formation of a statewide office of indigent defense. At that time, the recommendations focused on the benefits to be accrued through more efficient funding and more uniformity in the quality of indigent criminal defense.

Since the 2000 Spangenberg report , costs for indigent defense in Alabama have risen dramatically. The need to rein in those expenses has been the focus of much of the media coverage concerning the implementation of the Office of Indigent Defense.

However, Joseph A. Fawal, president of the Birmingham Bar Association and a member of the committee tasked with implementing the public defender office in Jefferson County, focuses more on the quality of representation.

Though he does not practice criminal defense law, Fawal has learned much about implementing a public defender system since beginning the process. He and other members of the committee visited the public defender's office in Nashville, TN where they had the opportunity to observe its operation and interview Nashville’s Public Defender. Overall, Fawal said, his research indicates the results have been good for quality of representation and cost.

"The main issue that I had wasn’t necessarily the monetary aspect and saving the state money; although clearly the statute was created because of that reason. The issue that I saw -- after spending a lot of time with the judges in the criminal justice center -- was that they did not feel that the current system provided the defendants with the best representation that they deserved. And that, I think was ... a fairly common opinion among a number of the judges."