By Rachel Baldauf
A new public defender’s office will serve Bladen, Brunswick and Columbus counties in a move that legal experts say will help low-income residents have effective representation in court.
The state budget passed last month by the General Assembly includes eight new public defender districts, mostly in rural counties.
Jon David, the district attorney for Bladen, Brunswick and Columbus counties, said in a statement that the region “desperately needs” a public defender’s office.
“Quality representation benefits both sides of the courtroom and increases the efficient administration of justice,” David said. “I have been a huge advocate for the creation of this office, and I am very encouraged that we now have this needed resource.”
Currently, 37 of North Carolina’s 100 counties have public defense offices that represent clients who cannot afford to hire private attorneys. The additional districts being created will bring the total to 59.
Some Democratic lawmakers have expressed interest in expanding public defender’s offices statewide. Becky Whitaker, the defender policy and planning attorney at the state Office of Indigent Defense Services, said that while statewide expansion is the ultimate goal, current efforts focus on rural areas where the need for lawyers is most dire.
“We don’t want people’s access to justice to be hindered by their geography,” she said.
Defendants who live in areas without public defenders must rely on court-appointed attorneys. Since 2018, however, the number of attorneys on court-appointed lists has declined 17%. Many are nearing retirement age, and few younger attorneys are signing up, citing low reimbursement rates by the state and long hours required for high-level cases like murder.
“Especially in Bladen and Columbus, for the past few years the court-appointed list has just become shorter and shorter,” said Superior Court Judge C. Ashley Gore.
In a story co-published in September, the Border Belt Independent and The Assembly highlighted the need for more defense attorneys to help work through a court backlog exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
North Carolina has 2.5 attorneys per 1,000 residents, ranking No. 39 in the nation, according to a 2022 American Bar Association report.
In southeastern North Carolina, Bladen and Scotland counties qualify as “legal deserts” where there is fewer than one lawyer for every 1,000 residents. Columbus and Robeson counties have fewer than two lawyers per 1,000 residents.
“This is something that plagues most areas of North Carolina,” said Jason C. Disbrow, a superior court judge in Brunswick County. “But specifically, it has really hit the rural areas more than any other place. We just don’t have enough lawyers.”
Butch Pope, a defense attorney in Columbus County, said low pay and large caseloads make it difficult to convince new lawyers to move to the area.
“Most of us are homegrown,” he said. “They’ve got to maintain an office and overhead. Sometimes they’re actually going in the hole representing their clients.”
The new public defender districts will be funded in part by a reduction to the Private Assigned Counsel Fund, which pays court-appointed attorneys. The budget reduces funding by $4.7 million this fiscal year and $9.7 million next fiscal year.
The new district representing Bladen, Brunswick and Columbus will cost $4.3 million over the next two years and employ 23 people, including one public defender, 16 assistant public defenders and six support staff. The public defender will be appointed in the coming months, and all other staff are expected to start early next year.
While the new public defense district is expected to be a significant boon to the region’s justice system, Pope said it won’t eliminate the problem. Robeson and Scotland counties both have public defender’s offices yet still struggle with significant case backlogs.
Private court-appointed attorneys will still be required in cases where a public defender has a conflict of interest, Whitaker said.
“There’s still going to be plenty of work for the private bar,” she said. “We’re still going to be engaged in those efforts to bring attorneys into the area and engage the ones that already are there to want to do this kind of work.”
Still, Pope said that having public defenders will take a much needed load off court-appointed attorneys in the region.
“They’ll never be able to handle all the cases,” Pope said. “But it will make a difference in our district.”
The seven other new public defender districts will serve:
- District 5: Duplin, Jones and Sampson counties
- District 7: Bertie, Halifax, Hertford and Northampton counties
- District 13: Johnston County
- District 17: Alamance County
- District 30: Union County
- District 32: Alexander and Iredell counties
- District 43: Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties.