Chronically overworked Montgomery County public defenders will get some help in the coming months thanks to a grant from the state Office of Indigent Legal Services.
The county Board of Supervisors last week approved the spending of more than $111,000 in grant funding. Lead Public Defender William Martuscello said his office will use the money over three years to hire a staff investigator.
“The district attorney can just call up law enforcement agencies and request certain investigations,” he said. “We can’t do that.”
Currently, he said, investigators are hired on a case-by-case basis out of a very limited budget. Often, he said, his attorneys end up gathering information and conducting interviews on their own.
“We had to be very picky about which cases required further investigation,” he said.
With someone on staff, he said, clients will get a better defense and the attorneys won’t be as pressed.
“The idea is to ease up on their workload,” said Root Town Supervisor John Thayer, the board chairman. “Our public defenders have a lot to do these days. This way, they won’t have to do their own investigations.”
Martuscello said he and five assistant public defenders handle 600 criminal cases a year and another 200 Family Court disputes.
“We handle more cases every year,” he said. “When I was growing up, armed robberies, shootings, drug busts, they happened in Albany. Now they happen here.”
The most recent grant is the second from the Office of Indigent Legal Services. The first came earlier this year, allowing the office to hire a second attorney for Family Court matters. Before that, Richard Weinheimer handled every child custody or domestic abuse case to hit the Public Defender’s Office.
“I was working 70 hours a week before that first grant,” he said, “and the criminal public defenders often had heavier case loads.”
It’s a busy job, apparently getting busier all the time. Weinheimer said when he started in 1991, there were between 70 and 80 Family Court cases a year. The caseload has more than doubled in two decades since then, and he said it’s even worse on the criminal side of the Public Defender’s Office.
“I think it’s because we have the Thruway right down the middle of the county,” he said. “If someone gets busted with drugs driving from New York City to Buffalo, we handle that case.”
Thayer had a less complex explanation for the increased public defender workload.
“Seems to be more and more people are breaking the law every year,” he said.
Without the extra grant funding from the Office of Indigent Legal Services, Weinheimer said, the office’s ability to provide legal defense would suffer. He said the function is largely out of the public eye, and as such many county public defender’s offices are underfunded and overworked.
“People don’t think about public defenders until they’re in need of our services,” he said.