By DENISE A. RAYMO
---- — MALONE — Public Defender Thomas Soucia is seeking grant funding to ensure that Franklin County residents who need free legal help get it.
At the same time, he’s on a campaign to educate potential clients about applying for help sooner instead of at the last minute so the proper attention can be paid to each case.
Soucia said that if his office does not have enough time to thoroughly go over the details and prepare for court appearances, it could mean the clients lose custody of their children or go to prison or are deported.
A one-page application is available at every municipal court, the Public Defender’s Office and under the office’s link on the county’s website at www.franklincony.org.
It asks basic identifying information, what court is involved and the person’s income and assets.
A checklist of required documents is furnished on the back of the application.
But Assigned Counsel Coordinator Jill Dyer said half the people who applied for free public-defender services in the past nine months did not include at least one of the required documents needed to determine their eligibility.
“The assumption is, if we had the person as an old client, we represent them forever,” Soucia said. “But if it’s a new charge, it’s a new case, and we might not know about it.
“We usually know what’s going on in people’s lives, but if it’s a new charge, we need to hear from them sooner and get a complete story of what’s going on. It’s to their benefit.
“It’s a concern for me because we can’t give them the representation they deserve without notice,” Soucia said, “especially when the other side is represented by counsel and is prepared.
“The court is not sympathetic because the person was notified of their court date weeks before.”
As of the end of September, the Public Defender’s Office caseload was at 691, plus it handled more than 100 parole appeals.
The Conflict Defender’s Office had a caseload of 480 clients, with 148 cases assigned to private attorneys when the Public Defender’s Office could not represent the person for various reasons.
To combat the problems, Soucia has been awarded a total of $74,000 in indigent-legal-services funding in the past two years for investigative help, arraignment appearances and computer upgrades.
And his office has until Oct. 18 to apply for the maximum of $100,000 for a three-year competitive-grant program to hire more staff investigators.
In the meantime, he is working to educate people. If they get in legal trouble and believe they are eligible for free help, they should contact his office with by telephone, email, fax or stop by in person.
“We want to make sure everyone in Franklin County gets the services they are entitled to,” Soucia said.
Email Denise A. Raymo:firstname.lastname@example.org
The Assigned Counsel Office of the Franklin County Public Defender's Office is on the second floor of the County Courthouse, Suite 237, and can be reached by calling 481-1423. The fax number is 481-1425, and the website is www.franklincony.org.