WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — There is only one court-appointed attorney for the most severe criminal cases in Sedgwick County. That same person is a private firm lawyer. The staffing shortage is causing issues beyond the courtroom.
District Attorney Marc Bennett says this lack of public defenders is a problem that elevated due to the pandemic, and it’s a problem that spreads far past Sedgwick County and even the state of Kansas.
Bennett explained, “You will find that is anything but a Wichita or Sedgwick County specific crisis.”
Eighteenth Judicial District Court Chief Judge, Jeff Goering, explains that a lack of public defenders strains every part of the judicial system.
Goering added, “You’re left calling Topeka and saying we don’t have anybody in Sedgwick County who can take this case, can you give me the name of someone in Emporia? Can you give me the name of someone in Hutchinson who I can appoint to take this case?”
Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter says this impact is felt down to the county jail.
“You have all of this backlog of folks that are sitting here. We’re sitting at 1,545 people that are in here right now. That is kind of unheard of for us in the wintertime,” Easter said.
One of the root causes is the pay. It’s keeping attorneys from putting their name on the list to be court-appointed. Last year, wages were raised to $100 an hour, and they will go up to $120 an hour in July of next year.
Bennett explained that it’s also a job where you can’t have unqualified attorneys.
“You still have to have someone who knows what they’re doing. This isn’t something you just pick up, oh I normally do wills and estates, but I’ll just go handle these murder cases, it can’t be that hard? You have to have the training and experience to do that effectively. It’s not something you just turn on and turn off.”
Bennett says another problem is the student loan cost of going to school for seven years to be an attorney leads many to choose a higher paying private practice position than become a public defender.