COLUMBUS — In an effort to decrease the workload in the Platte County Public Defender’s Office, new cases this month will be diverted to other lawyers.
The Platte County Board of Supervisors approved the request Tuesday by Tim Matas, the public defender, to have new cases temporarily diverted to outside counsel.
Lawyers outside the public defender’s office are routinely assigned cases by judges when the county can’t take them on. This move will take that a step further by assigning all the new cases in May to an outside counsel in an effort to lessen the amount of work for employees in the public defender's office.
In the past 12 months, Matas said his office was allocated 3,755 hours of case-related material work.
“That number, where we are right now, is 161 percent of what we are supposed to be able to handle in our office,” Matas said. “We are asking for permission to let the court know they can temporarily, for the rest of the month only, divert cases to outside counsel to get our numbers under control.”
The public defender’s office has two lawyers, a full-time staffer and one part-time paralegal who was hired in March.
In October, the board received a letter from the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska stating that the public defender’s office needed to expand its staffing to be compliant with state and federal law.
The ACLU said the hours put in by the number of people in the office exceeded the maximum caseload calculation by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards. The calculation measures limits for felonies, misdemeanors, juvenile cases and appeals per year, per attorney.
Hiring a paralegal was one way the county has tried to address the issue. Recently, the board also approved implementing an adult diversion program for first-time offenders of minor crimes. Adults who are referred to and complete the program could have their charges dismissed. That program could lessen the number of cases brought to the public defender’s office.
Adult diversion was approved by the board in March, so there hasn’t been enough time to effect the number of cases seen by the public defender’s office yet.
“I do think diversion does have a good chance to impact these overages. It just hasn’t been active long enough to get completely rolling,” Matas said.
Only new cases will be diverted. The office will keep cases it's currently defending or cases where a motion is filed to revoke probation.
When asked if diverting cases would go beyond the month of May, Matas said that could happen if the office still is seeing a high caseload.
“We have to wait and see where the numbers are at the end of May to be able to know if we would come back in June,” he said.
In other business, the board approved:
* installing a phone line for the paralegal in the public defender’s office at a cost of $493.
* purchasing operational software for three computers in the county treasurer’s office for $450.
* appointing Supervisor Ron Pfeifer to attend a preconstruction conference Friday for Southeast 460th Street in Lindsay in the county highway department.