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Westmoreland County looks to hire up to 5 lawyers

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Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

Westmoreland County is looking for a few defense lawyers.

The county later this month will open a conflict counsel office to represent indigent defendants whose cases cannot be handled by the Public Defender's Office.

Court officials said Monday that up to five lawyers will be hired to each defend 75 criminal cases this year.

The private lawyers will be paid $40,000, although they won't be considered county employees and won't receive benefits. They will not handle homicide cases, in which judges will still appoint defense attorneys on a case-by-case basis.

“Hopefully, it will save the county some money, but only time will tell,” said President Judge Gary Caruso.

Most indigent defendants are represented by the county's 10 public defenders, who handle about 3,000 cases a year.

In cases where there is a conflict of interest, such as prosecutions involving multiple defendants, judges appoint private lawyers. Those attorneys earn $45 an hour.

Court Administrator Paul Kuntz said the new system, which operates in 25 counties, is anticipated to streamline criminal court cases.

The savings the county will realize is still in question, though.

Last year, private lawyers appointed by judges were paid a total of $305,000. That figure does not include bills still to be submitted for work at the end of the year.

In 2011, judges appointed more than 50 private lawyers to represent about 330 defendants. The county paid $368,000 for those lawyers.

Figures for the previous two years include costs to represent poor defendants accused of homicide.

Under the new system, the county will pay out a minimum of $200,000 for the conflict counsel office.

“We don't know what the benefits will be. We are hoping it will ease the administration and save the county some money,” Kuntz said.

Court-appointed attorneys now must have each hourly bill approved by a judge. That will no longer be necessary for the conflict counsel, who will be paid a regular monthly salary.

The county has received five applications for the jobs and more are being solicited.

The judges are expected to hire the lawyers by mid-January, Kuntz said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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