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Westmoreland County commissioners say supplemental lawyer program a success

| Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, 11:42 p.m.

Court-appointed lawyers hired to supplement the public defender's office representing indigent clients saved county taxpayers more than $70,000 last year.

The program, enacted last year, replaced a system in which judges appointed private lawyers and paid them hourly wages to handle cases that public defenders could not take because of conflicts of interest.

As part of the new system, the county hired 10 lawyers who handled 38 cases apiece. The lawyers were paid a $20,000 annual salary without benefits.

“It's reflecting the cost savings we thought it would,” said court administrator Paul Kuntz.

On Thursday, county commissioners unanimously renewed the conflict counsel program and rehired nine of the lawyers chosen last year to serve as defense attorneys. A 10th was hired to replace an attorney who resigned from the program.

Kuntz said it cost taxpayers more than $368,000 in 2011 and $278,000 in 2012 for court-appointed lawyers. Last year, the bill for the conflict-counsel team was about $205,000.

Lawyers were assigned 38 cases, but several were hired to defend a few additional clients at an hourly rate.

The county added lawyers at a $45 hourly rate to represent clients in homicide trials and for appeals.

“The only issue we might consider is adding compensation if cases go to trial,” Kuntz said.

This year, lawyers will receive no added pay for trials.

Commissioners said the program has met its goal to save money.

“I'm satisfied it's working,” said Commissioner Ted Kopas.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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