The attorneys who represent people charged with crimes in Summit County who cannot afford their own attorneys may receive a raise.
Summit County Council is expected to pass legislation Monday evening to increase the hourly rate for attorneys to appear in court from $ 50 to $ 60 per hour.
That’s good news for local criminal defense lawyers and the Akron Bar Association, which has been pushing for wages higher for two decades.
“It’s long overdue,” said Jeff Laybourne, a noted criminal defense attorney who previously chaired the criminal justice division of the local bar association. “I’m glad we finally got some exercise.”
The rate hike leaves Summit behind some larger counties like Montgomery and Lucas, which pay $ 75 an hour but are on par with Franklin and Cuyahoga counties. Several other nearby counties, including Portage and Stark, pay attorneys $ 50 an hour.
Summit is among many counties across the state investigating how much they are paying lawyers in response to Governor Mike DeWine and lawmakers increasing the state’s reimbursement rate for needy defense. The legislature increased the rate in the current state budget from 40% to 70% this year and from 90% next year.
Tim Young, the state’s public defender, said the right to an attorney is guaranteed by both the state and the U.S. Constitution. According to legislation from 1976, the state undertook to share these costs among the counties.
Even so, the percentage of counties reimbursed by the state fell to the mid to high 40s in the late 1990s and to 25% by 2008. This left the counties shouldering the burden as they grappled with an economic downturn and losses in other government funding sources.
Given the state’s increased engagement, Young urged the counties to consider how much they are paying lawyers. He said many studies have found it cost an attorney $ 40 an hour to just pay their overheads, including office space, insurance, staff, and legal research materials.
“If you’re not on $ 50, you’re paying the minimum wage,” said Young. “I consider $ 60 the number to be encouraged.”
“This is still a local decision,” he added.
Summit County, which pays private attorneys to represent needy defendants charged with crime, has been researching its pay structure for about a year. The problem has been put on hold for several months because of the pandemic.
The county has paid attorneys $ 50 an hour for appearances in court and $ 40 an hour for work outside of court for two decades.
Brian Nelsen, chief of staff for Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro, said district leaders wanted to raise rates but were concerned about the possibility the state’s reimbursement levels would drop again. To remedy this, they developed a staggered plan tied to reimbursement by the state, which means the rate will go up or down depending on the state’s commitment. The county’s advocacy rates are updated on July 1 each year to reflect the state reimbursement amount.
This is an approach that has not been tried in any other county in Ohio.
At the 70 percent rate currently reimbursed by the state to counties, Summit’s legal fee would be $ 60 for in or out of court litigation.
“As long as the state reimburses these higher rates, we are happy to pay them out at higher rates,” said Nelsen.
The county is also changing the caps paid lawyers for certain types of cases to reflect the amount recommended by the state’s defense lawyer. The revised interest rates and caps would start in the new year.
The county plans further changes related to attorney payments, including the introduction of a virtual billing system to replace the long-standing paper method, Nelsen said.
Alderman Clair Dickinson, an attorney and former judge, said the increase in rates was a long-needed change.
“The attorneys making these appointments have been terribly underpaid for years,” Dickinson said recently at a meeting of the virtual council committee. “This is a step in the right direction.”
Ron Koehler, another attorney, agreed that the increases are necessary, although he said they are still too low. He said he hadn’t taken appointments a long time ago because of the below average pay.
Two judges who attended the committee meeting, Annalisa Stubbs Williams, a judge from Akron and Jill Flagg Lanzinger, a judge from Barberton, agreed that the increases were warranted.
C. Allen Nichols, executive director of the Akron Bar Association, said he was pleased the county was finally taking this step.
“We are thrilled that the county and chief executive have recognized that attorneys who provide legal assistance to those who cannot afford it are worth the raise,” he said. “It’s past time.”
However, Nichols said he would have preferred if the rates were not tied to the state’s reimbursement level.
“We hope the state will keep the end of the deal,” he said.
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at [email protected], 330-996-3705 and on Twitter at @swarsmithabj.
As Summit compares:
Here’s a look at how Summit County’s proposed new hourly rate for attorneys compares to other counties and Ohio’s largest counties. This is the sentence for lawyers representing needy defendants in court:
Lucas: $ 75
Mahoning: $ 75
Montgomery: $ 75
Cuyahoga: $ 60
Franklin: $ 60
Hamilton: $ 60
Summit: $ 60
Medina: $ 50
Portage: $ 50
Strong: $ 50
Wayne: $ 50
Source: Ohio Public Defender’s Office.