Legal Defense Costs Way More in Knox County

August 22, 2011

The Knox News-Sentinel has a great report on the ballooning costs for legal defense in Knox County that finds questionable costs and irresponsible use of taxpayer money.

While only 7% of the state calls Knox County home, the paper’s report reveals the county consumes 17% of the state’s budget for indigent defense. By comparison; Davidson, Hamilton and Shelby counties all use .4 to 11.5% less than Knox. With 12 attorneys charging at least $100,000 last year to defend Knox County’s poor – more than any county in the state – Knox County’s defense attorneys are being paid handsomely.

The state tried to curb costs on indigent defense, a program that annually receives over $37 million annually, by creating an office of the Public Defender rather than contracting with private attorneys for each case. The benefit of a Public Defender’s office in the county is controlled cost; there are set salaries for attorneys that handle all cases in the county. This mitigates the need to hire more attorneys, who charge exorbitant fees, based on the case load.

Inexplicably, Knox County sought exemption from this state program. Critics argue that local trial attorneys are powerful, and with the current system proving profitable, there was fierce push back to a Public Defender’s office.

Knox County needs to rein in the costs of its indigent defense program. Everyone deserves access to justice and a reasonable defense, yet there is no reason the costs should be so dramatically high in Knox County compared to the rest of the state.

Taxpayers can no longer be taken for a ride. We must find alternatives – regardless of what special interests want – to provide fairness to the poor without breaking the bank.

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