In an effort to save money, Westmoreland County plans to hire five criminal defense attorneys this month.
Court administrator Paul Kuntz said 10 attorneys have already applied for the independent contractor positions, and judges hope to select the five attorneys in the next couple of weeks.
They will be paid $40,000 a year to represent approximately 75 indigent defendants each, but they will not be county employees and will not receive benefits such as health care.
They will handle those cases that cannot be represented by the public defender's office because the cases have multiple defendants.
"I certainly hope it will save money, that's the goal," Commissioner Chuck Anderson said. "These costs have gone up, and now they will be more predictable. Of course, it's a work in progress, but that's our intention -- to save taxpayers money and be more efficient and cost-effective."
It is called a "conflict counsel" system because the defense attorneys are needed when the county's public defender's office has a conflict due to the fact that a case has several defendants. By law, the county must provide indigent defendants accused of a crime with an attorney, but a public defender can represent only one person in a case.
"If we get one drug bust, you could have 20 defendants," Mr. Kuntz said.
Currently, the county's judges select court-appointed private attorneys to represent other defendants at a rate of $45 an hour.
Each court-appointed attorney must submit bills to a judge for review and the bills are handled by the court administrator's office.
"This system will streamline that process and save the judge and our office time," Mr. Kuntz said. "It might also save money, we'll have to see."
Mr. Kuntz said 25 other counties in the state, including Allegheny County, use some kind of a conflict-attorney system.
He said the newly hired attorneys will be assigned cases from the public defender's office but will work out of their own private offices.
Mr. Kuntz said the county's criminal caseload has been stable in recent years at about 5,000 cases a year.
Most indigent defendants, or about 3,000 cases a year, are represented by the public defender's office. In 2011, 330 defendants were represented by court-appointed attorneys, according to Mr. Kuntz. The county paid about $350,000 for those attorneys, but the fees included complex homicide cases.
"It is the capital cases [homicide cases in which the death penalty is sought] where the court-appointed attorney fees add up," Mr. Kuntz said.
The "conflict counsel" defense attorneys will handle preliminary hearings at a district judge's office, Accelerated Rehabilitation Disposition cases for first-time offenders, and guilty pleas, but they will not handle homicide cases.
The county will pay a minimum of $200,000 this year for the five new independent defense attorneys.
Mr. Kuntz said some of the 10 applicants have good criminal court experience. "We want someone with criminal experience, so whoever the judges select, we're going to get some very qualified attorneys," he said.
Debra Duncan, freelance writer: email@example.com.