First time offenders in our community often get arrested for misdemeanors, and many of them have no connections within the criminal justice system or the money to pay for a lawyer. In Terre Haute, our local public defenders office (PDO) gets reimbursed by the state for each felony case their attorneys handle, as long as those attorneys don’t exceed a yearly case limit set by the Indiana Public Defenders Commission. However, our state and local PDOs do not get reimbursed for misdemeanor cases. What that means is that while many local public defenders are handling 50-100 low level felony cases, there are two attorneys in Terre Haute who have been tasked with handling over 400 misdemeanor cases each (see pg 34 of Indiana Task Force on Public Defense document linked)!
Even at 400 cases a piece, Vigo County would have enough cases to keep over twenty full time public defenders busy. Going in to 2020 our county had over 8,000 misdemeanor cases pending. We also had over 2,000 new cases added, and just a little over 1,500 disposed, leaving over 9,500 pending for 2021. What that means for our community is, people who are arrested, and can’t afford bail, are stuck in jail longer, which has been a major factor contributing to our jail overcrowding. Unfortunately, the solution isn’t as simple as increasing our public defenders budget, because the budget for our Public Defender’s Office is already twice that of similar sized counties.
In the above paragraph there were two statements that I have discovered, upon further research, are either false or misleading. The entire back log of misdemeanor cases are not immediately ready for prosecution, so would not require “twenty full time public defenders,” and the vast majority of inmates currently in our county jail are there for felony cases, approximately 90% by my recent count.
For example, Muncie’s public defender office’s budget is a little over $1.5 million dollars a years, according to the Delaware County Auditor’s office, while Terre Haute’s is over $3 million, despite Delaware County being slightly larger with similar demographics and crime rates. The only thing that seems to account for such a wide discrepancy in funding with such a small difference in results is that the Chief Public Defender in Terre Haute is Gretchen Etling, whose husband Joe Etling is the Chair of the local Democratic Party, while the Chief Public Defender in Delaware County appears to not be politically connected. As mentioned earlier, this inefficiency in our public defenders office has led to jail overcrowding, requiring a new jail estimated to cost the county $100 million dollars over 20 years, and Sheriff John Plasse was recently approved for a correctional officer pay increase of over a million dollars a year to entice applicants needed for increased jail staffing requirements.
With the rapid increase in crime, declining employment, and declining wages, we should not expect these costs to go down any time soon. It seems clear that we need major investments in education, low income neighborhoods, and addiction recovery to reverse these trends, but even if the new school referendum passes we’re looking at several years before new facilities start to be utilized, and for decades state and federal funds that were supposed to be invested in low income neighborhoods have been spent elsewhere. These facts make it all the more outrageous that our community was planning on spending $35 million dollars, on mostly private initiatives, that would primarily benefit local special interests. If you’ve been following the Something Stinks series and you’ve been tempted to think things will never change, stay tuned for an upcoming article on the possibility of dramatic political shifts in the near future.
[Gretchen Etling was contacted repeatedly for comment and never responded.]