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Cutting court costs

April 20, 1999

A legislative study done by West Virginia's Joint Committee on government Relations shows that contrary to popular belief. most of the people who are represented by public defenders really couldn't afford to hire lawyers on their own.

That's the good news. Unfortunately for those concerned about the state's costs, the report also concluded that the only way to stem the rising tide of red ink in the public defender's office is to remove jail penalties from many minor crimes. For most elected officials, the choice comes down to two unpleasant alternatives - raising additional revenues or risking the charge that they're being "soft on crime."

The study involved more than 1,000 cases in a three-county judicial circuit covering Hancock, Brooke and Ohio counties. It found that most defendants who had public defenders had incomes of less than $20,000 per year. Many of those had been charged with misdemeanors, including driving while intoxicated. But when an offense includes the possibility of jail time, a public defender must be appointed.

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For Del. Vicki Douglas, D-Berkeley, the preferred solution would be upping the fines involved and the amount of community service required after a conviction. In addition, Douglas said, convicted drunken drivers should be required to install interlock devices on their autos so that they could not be started by someone who was intoxicated.

While we sympathize with the state's problem here - public defender costs have risen from $6.5 million annually in the late 1980s to more than $25 million today, eliminating any possibility of jail time isn't appropriate for some offenses, particularly driving while intoxicated.

For those who can't seem to stop getting behind the wheel while intoxicated condition, forced incarceration may be the only way to break the cycle of inebriation. If there's a form of home detention or daily blood or urine testing that can accomplish the same thing, we're all ears, but in a case where a misdemeanor can so easily become a felony, caution is mandatory.

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