CONWAY -- Since 2001, the Faulkner County Quorum Court has diverted more than $350,000 in restricted funds from the 20th Judicial Circuit public defender's office to other programs.
The prosecuting attorney's office, which got part of the money, has agreed to return $23,500, but the Quorum Court has declined to reimburse any of the remaining money. That refusal leaves the public defender's office without enough money to hire an investigator or a legal secretary to assist part-time defenders, said Public Defender Lynn Plemmons.
Plemmons, whose office represents court-determined indigent defendants, said he began checking past budgets after he took over the circuit's position in February and noticed the transfers.
The first one took place in 2001 for $133,496.87. That money first was moved from the defender's investigator fund to the county general fund and then to a county judge construction fund, according to a budgetary summary compiled by Plemmons.
Since then, the county also has transferred a total of $220,400 from the investigator fund to the prosecuting attorney's victim witness fund, Plemmons said. That brings the total money transferred from the defender's office to other entities to $353,896.87 since 2001.
County attorney David Hogue said the Quorum Court has agreed to end the practice but declined to allot the defender's office an additional $60,000 in the 2019 budget. That was the sum Plemmons was seeking from the county's criminal justice funds to hire an investigator and a legal secretary.
The public defender's investigator fund and the main public-defender fund are financed "exclusively by court costs, filing fees, and bail bond fees," according to Plemmons' proposal that failed to win Quorum Court approval during a December meeting. The measure said that "no County General funds or criminal justice sales tax funds have been used to support the Public Defender Office since the creation of the Public Defender Commission."
Since its creation, the measure added, the investigator fund had received more than $389,795.52 from court costs and filing fees. But that fund "has been depleted by having funds transferred for other uses inconsistent with its purpose."
According to Plemmons' summaries, the transfers to the prosecutor's office began in 2004 with $3,100. Subsequent transfers ranged from zero in 2006 to $26,000 in 2016. Most recently, $25,000 was transferred in 2017 and $15,000 in 2018.
The 20th Judicial Circuit includes Faulkner, Van Buren and Searcy counties. The funding at issue, though, involves only Faulkner County.
Justice of the Peace John Pickett, chairman of the Quorum Court's Finance Committee last year, said he believes that "broadly defined," public-defender funding "is a criminal-justice issue."
"It just happens to be on the defense side rather than the prosecution or sheriff's side," Pickett said Wednesday. "The Quorum Court is going to have to find the money [the requested $60,000] somewhere -- either take it out of the sheriff's office or take it out of county general."
Pickett, who doesn't know if he will be committee chairman yet this year, noted that the Quorum Court has seven new members. "We're going to have to fund the public defender's office," he said. "I just simply don't know what the collective judgment" will be.
"We are a nation of laws," Pickett said. "And the [U.S.] Supreme Court has ruled years ago that defendants are entitled to legal defense, and the best legal defense that, quote, money can buy because they are innocent until proven guilty."
Steve Goode, a justice of the peace for 12 years, said Wednesday that he doesn't "know that we've got the ability to make up what's happened in the past" but said, "We would certainly want to do it right in the future."
Goode said the county's general fund doesn't have enough money to spare for reimbursement and he does not favor using criminal justice revenue for the public defender's office.
"We have an underfunded sheriff's department as it is," Goode said. "I would not be for taking any of that money from the sheriff's office."
Goode said he has "100 percent confidence in our judges to ensure that each defendant gets a fair trial."
Plemmons said he still hopes to work with the Quorum Court on the issue.
"A good investigator can make the difference between an innocent person going to prison or not," he said.
Faulkner County has collected a half of 1 percent sales tax since 2000. Half of the tax revenue goes to county roads; the other half, to criminal-justice purposes. Hogue said Wednesday that the criminal-justice funds usually go to the sheriff's and prosecutor's offices.
The 1999 ordinance approved by the Quorum Court calling for the ultimately successful sales-tax election defined criminal-justice purposes as "one or any combination of the following: law enforcement and the apprehension, prosecution, probation, rehabilitation or detention of any criminals, accused defendants, suspects or juvenile detainees."
Hogue said he suspects "that there may be an effort" to address the matter again. "I suspect it will come back to the table," he said.
State Desk on 01/03/2019
Print Headline: Faulkner County diverted $353,896 meant for defender role