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Playing favorites

 If the 13th Circuit public defender and solicitor were siblings and Greenville County was their parent, identifying the favorite child would be simple. He’d be the one with cash spilling from his pockets while his sister begged for money.

The funding disparity between prosecutors and public defenders is so stark here that the figures seem erroneous at first glance.

During the current fiscal year, the county gave prosecutors $6,455,166 while public defenders got $613,825 – less than 9 percent of the county’s budget for the two offices.

The money gulf between solicitors and public defenders in Greenville gradually occurred from 1981 to 2008, when the county relied on a now-defunct contract-based system in which private lawyers moonlighted as public defenders.

“During that system, funding for prosecution increased each year while the cost of the contractors stayed relatively flat,” said John Mauldin, the circuit’s chief public defender. “There was no one to advocate for the contractors back then and that’s how you ended up with a 91-percent discrepancy.”

The sizeable allowance that the circuit’s top solicitor, W. Walter Wilkins, gets from the county has given his office a severely lopsided advantage over Mauldin and his staff.

Mauldin estimated that his office handles about 75 percent of the criminal cases in the county with 10 full-time defenders and 11 part-timers working on a contractual basis in Greenville. Each of them normally has between 200 and 250 clients.

And they are up against 47 full-time and four part-time prosecutors.

Having a poorly funded public defender’s office has been a drag on the local criminal justice system, leading to backlogs of old cases that clog the docket while defendants either languish behind bars or roam the streets after posting bail, according to Mauldin.

“The system basically runs at the pace of the slowest horse and we’re the slowest horse,” he said. “This affects clients who are charged … and also the law enforcement officers who brought the charges and will have to be witnesses in cases that are delayed. And it affects the victims. They want their day in court just like the defendant does.”

‘No one … can justify this’

Bob Taylor is one of those victims. He also happens to serve as chairman of the Greenville County Council, which doles out the money to public defenders and solicitors.

Taylor’s home was burglarized a year and a half ago and the two suspects were caught immediately, he said. But after the arrests the system grinded to a halt and Mauldin has grown impatient.

“They’re both being defended by public defenders. All they do is postpone, postpone, postpone,” he said. “Part of that might be because they [public defenders] don’t have the money to keep up. If that’s the case I think we need to do something about it.”

Taylor noted that the county recently agreed to “significantly increase” the public defender budget for fiscal year 2016, giving them an additional $134,000 to the prosecutors’ extra $169,291.

But Mauldin had asked for a bump of $332,526. He said he presented the council members and the county administrator with a report detailing public defender caseloads, salary levels and funding needs.

“It’s very difficult to turn this system around,” he added. “It’s been expressed to me that the level of funding support for the prosecution and law enforcement in our county is a matter of public policy. The funding disparity and the resulting inefficiencies ought to be public policy as well, but apparently it isn’t.”

While the public defenders will get a little more money next year, the county plans to cut $15,000 from their budget in fiscal year 2017. Solicitors will get another cash infusion of $208,737 for that same year.

The county writes its budgets on a two-year cycle, which means Greenville’s public defenders will be waiting a while for their next opportunity to try to persuade the council to give them more money.

Taylor, meanwhile, initially acknowledged that Greenville might have a problem but later asserted that it was the “state’s responsibility” to fund his county’s public defenders. The defenders were given $1,151,154 from the state this fiscal year, according to Mauldin.

But the solicitor’s office also received at least $940,836 from the state – $652,476 in regular funding and $288,360 in fines and fees for the first three quarters of the year. The fourth quarter numbers were not yet available.

“No one who looks at this fairly and reasonably can justify this type of disparity,” said Patrick McLaughlin, a criminal defense lawyer at the Wukela Law Office in Florence who has been paying attention to the issue.

“It’s being penny wise and pound foolish not to fund equally,” he added. “Funding the indigent defense side of criminal prosecutions equally will result in better and faster justice.”

Wilkins, the solicitor, referred comment to David Ross, head of the South Carolina Commission on Prosecution Coordination, which oversees criminal prosecution in the state. He did not respond to a message.

Bringing bats to a tank fight

Greenville is the stingiest population center in the state when it comes to paying for indigent defense. The county is home to more than 450,000 people, but provides its public defenders with only $1.26 in funding per capita.

The funding rate in Pickens County, which also is part of the 13th Circuit and has a population of about 120,000, is 81 cents. The defender offices in Pickens and Greenville have separate staff and they do not handle one another’s cases.

Robert Madsen, chief public defender for the 11th Circuit, which includes Lexington County, feels Mauldin’s pain. This year, Lexington County Council gave his office $514,000 compared with the local solicitor’s $2.8 million.

“It’s like bringing a bat to fight folks who have Sherman tanks,” he said. “The biggest problem you run into here and in Greenville is you have a more conservative county council and they just don’t fund public defender offices.”

Patton Adams, executive director of the South Carolina Commission on Indigent Defense, which lobbies for state money for public defenders, said the law allows counties to fund their public defender offices however they want.

“The counties don’t have to follow any formula,” he added. “It’s very difficult for us, at the state level, to do anything about that. We have generally left it up to the circuit defenders to work with their various council members and managers and so forth to educate them on the need for greater funding.”

The funding disparity between public defenders and prosecutors in Greenville and Lexington is striking and problematic, but not indicative of the state as a whole. For instance, the per capita contribution rate for public defenders in Charleston County is $8.79. Richland County’s rate is $4.08.

York County, which has a contribution rate of $5.76, gave its public defenders $1,204,765 this fiscal year, compared with $3,781,802 for solicitors. The defenders’ share is not anywhere close to the 80-percent cut that they’ve been seeking for years based on data that shows they handle, on a statewide basis, that same percentage of cases.

But York’s public defenders are getting more green than many of their colleagues in other parts of the state, said Harry Dest, the circuit’s chief public defender. He added that his office leveraged a “huge backlog” of criminal cases that developed in York in the 1990s to successfully push the county council to agree to pay assistant public defenders the same as assistant solicitors.

“That was a huge step forward for us,” he said. “The county council adopted the idea of parity and now we receive a good portion of our funds from the county. I think more and more counties and legislators are beginning to understand that we are an integral part of the criminal justice system.”

Follow Phillip Bantz on Twitter @SCLWBantz

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