Itawamba Supervisors ponder public defender position

By Adam Armour/The Itawamba County Times

Itawamba County Supervisors are considering hiring a second public defender; counter-intuitive as it might seem, it’s a move that could save the county money.

Currently, the county employs Fulton attorney Lori Nail Basham as its public defender at a salary of $3,500 per month, or $42,000 a year, plus benefits. Basham also receives additional pay for serving as the county’s youth court judge. When compared to nearby counties, most of which have more than one public defender, this salary is relatively high. For example, Pontotoc County has two public defenders who have a combined annual salary of $56,000.

According to information brought forward at the request of board attorney Bo Russell, the county could employ two public defenders, each of whom would handle half the county’s caseload, at a cost of $25,000 each, or $50,000 annually. While it doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that $50,000 isn’t less than $42,000, it is considerably cheaper than what the county actually spends on paying for public defense each year when conflict cases are taken into account.

Conflict cases are those in which, for one reason or another, Basham either can’t serve as the public defender due to a conflict of interest or there is more than one co-defendant in the case. The county spends upwards of $30,000 each year hiring additional attorneys to handle conflict cases, bringing the total amount spent on the office of public defender to around $72,000 annually.

During their regular meeting last week, supervisors discussed the pros and cons of reducing the base salary for its public defender, hiring an additional public defender and splitting the county’s caseload between them rather than constantly hiring attorneys to handle conflict cases.

“If we’re going to spend that much, we could hire another public defender and save the county a lot of money,” said Eric “Tiny” Hughes, a statement with which the rest of the board seemed to agree.

But Basham asserted that the numbers are a bit more deceptive than that. While her pay as public defender is comparatively high, her salary as youth court judge is the opposite. When both are taken into consideration, she says the county comes out spending about as much as its neighbors.

Basham is paid $2,500 a month to serve as the county’s youth court judge, a job which has grown increasingly time-consuming over the years. She told the board her workload with the county’s youth court has more than doubled in the eight years she’s served as judge, and contended that she remains the lowest paid youth court judge in the district.

As for the problem of spending on conflict cases, Basham had previously suggested the county keep an overflow attorney on retainer … a suggestion she reiterated during last week’s meeting. At a salary of $1,000 to $1,200 per month, he or she could handle all of the county’s conflict cases and the county would still come out saving money over hiring attorneys on a case-by-case basis.

“In my opinion, the county does not have the caseload to support two public defenders; it will end up costing more in the long run,” Basham said. She handles approximately 134 cases each year. “I do think you have enough [cases] to hire an overflow public defender to handle 95 percent of the conflict cases.”

According to info Basham provided the board, Itawamba County’s caseload definitely falls short of most of its neighbors. For instance, Pontotoc has an average caseload of 204; Prentiss County’s is 211; Monroe’s is 313.

Circuit Court Judge Thomas Gardner, III, who was also present during the meeting, backed Basham’s assertion that hiring an overflow attorney is a good idea.

“I think it would be an economic benefit for you to hire someone to handle the spill-over,” Gardner said, referring to the county’s conflict cases.

Some of these conflict cases are a result of Basham’s two positions. For example, when Basham hears a youth court case involving a parent accused of abusing his or her child, she can’t represent that defendant in circuit court. In those cases, the county has to hire an attorney to act as public defender.

Therein lies a more complicated situation that will mostly likely be addressed sooner rather than later. According to information brought to the board by Russell, there’s some question as to whether or not Basham can legally serve as both the county’s public defender and youth court judge.

According to information provided by the Mississippi Ethics Commission, the answer to that question is, “no.” The Mississippi Code of 1972 states that a “public servant of a county” — in other words, an elected or appointed official — may not simultaneously serve as a “contractor” to the county. In other words, according to the MEC, Basham can’t serve as both public defender and youth court judge.

This issue was discussed briefly, but dropped.

In the end, the board decided not to vote on the issue and to take all the information presented to them into consideration before making any official decisions.

Board President Charles Horn commented, “We’ll take all of what’s been said under advisement.”

adam.armour@journalinc.com