Dobbe sentencing

Prosecutor Nick Freeman (foreground) reviews the circumstances of Jeremy Dobbe's manslaughter case while John Jorgensen (center) and Dobbe listen to during Dobbe's sentencing in 2014 in Lancaster County District Court. The need for judges to appoint private attorneys in Lancaster County for defendants eligible for public defenders has been on the rise.

Each month, the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office, which represents criminal defendants who can't afford to pay for their own attorney, reaches a point where it has to ask the court to appoint outside counsel in cases.

Attorneys in the office file so-called "overload motions," prompting judges to appoint private attorneys who bill by the hour.

It can translate into real money, considering public defenders are paid salaries, while private attorneys get a contract rate: $50 an hour for misdemeanor cases and $75 an hour for felonies.

It's nothing new for the office, one of the first public defender offices to track how long cases take on average.

But this summer and fall, Lancaster County Public Defender Joe Nigro said he's noticed the office is hitting its max number of cases per attorney sooner each month.

Attorneys usually hit their max around the middle of the month.

"Sometimes we get to the third week. It's kind of unheard of anymore to make it to the fourth," Nigro said in a recent interview. "The overload numbers have just skyrocketed."

In July, public defenders filed the motions in 40 cases, 31 of them involving felony charges. In August, it was 102 cases, including 67 felonies. And in September, it was 60, 43 of them felonies.

Nigro said he hoped, for the county's sake, that August was an aberration, since it was such a jump.

Either way, the numbers are concerning, he said.

"With workload standards we can only do what we can do," Nigro said. "It costs less for us to do the cases."

At a meeting this summer, he told the Lancaster County Board that if his office had more staff it could save taxpayers money because it could take more cases.

In 2016, his office had to ask to get out of 500 felony cases (21.5 percent of its total) and another 182 misdemeanors (6.4 percent), because taking them would have put attorneys over the office's caseload standards, according to the office's annual report.

It was a jump from the 18 misdemeanors and 130 felonies the office asked to get out of in 2015.

Nigro said the board authorized funding for one additional public defender for the office. But he's waiting to make that hire until renovations are done to the building and there's office space. He hopes to have someone hired early next year.

If case overloads continue at this pace, Nigro said he may ask for two more lawyers and possibly a paralegal in the next budget year.

The question remains: What is behind the increase in cases, especially considering statistics that say crime is down in Lincoln?

There could be many factors at play, such as police clearing more cases than they used to thanks to cellphones, or more people asking for a public defender. And, in January, the Lancaster County Attorney's Office got funding for an additional prosecutor.

But, in a recent interview, Nigro pointed to a single cause.

"It's all being driven by the drug case filings," he said.

For the first nine months of the year, drug cases are the only felony category where cases are up, he said. Some 80 percent of those are possession cases filed for user-level amounts or "residue cases" for what's left behind in a meth pipe.

In some states, that might only qualify as a misdemeanor, he said. Even here, they used to be charged as attempted-possession cases — misdemeanors — but now start out as felonies, Nigro said.

Nigro said he's proposed a drug diversion program he thinks could help users deal with drug problems and cut down recidivism.

He thinks it could stem the tide of the trend he's seeing.

"To me, what are we really accomplishing here," Nigro said of the increase in possession cases. "We're talking about people who essentially have a health problem."

The idea hasn't yet taken off.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSpilger.

Reporter

Lori Pilger is a public safety reporter.

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