Poverty A Large Part Of Justice System

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The 32-percent poverty level in Athens County affects many areas of life, but in one particular populace a rise in poverty levels has been shown, along with a cycle of poverty officials say is difficult to escape.

Athens County Common Pleas Court has already seen a rise in the last five years of affidavits of indigency, which are filed by those facing charges but claim that based on their income, they can not afford a lawyer.

“We have seen a rise in the amount of applications in this court,” said Judge George McCarthy. “That’s an indication to me that those with lower incomes are coming into the courts more often.”

In 2009, the court processed 386 affidavits. From Jan. 1 of this year up to Sept. 8, the court had already filed 387 affidavits, according to Clerk of Courts Ann Trout. It expects to file more by the end of the year, and has processed more than 2,200 affidavits since 2009.

In 2012, the court processed 573 affidavits, and last year, that number rose to 612, continuing a steady rise in the number of people asking for low-cost legal assistance because of income.

The affidavits allow the Ohio Office of the Public Defenders to come in and represent the defendants. Many in the Athens County area are facing low-level felonies and drug charges, according to Herman Carson, director of the Athens branch of the public defender’s office.

“Drug addictions, of course, don’t pay any attention to socio-economic status,” Carson said.

In order to qualify for the public defender’s office representation, potential clients’ income must be less than 187.5 percent of the poverty guidelines determined by the United States Department of Health & Human Services.

According to public defender guidelines, an individual qualifies if their gross income is less than $21,881.

“If you make $14 an hour and have three children, so you’re a family of five, you’d be eligible for our services,” Carson said.

Felony cases taken on by the public defender’s office in common pleas court rose from 17 between March 2012 and Feb. 2013, to 47 in the same period in 2013 and 2014, according to the Ohio Public Defender Commission’s annual reports.

Although cases have gone up, state governments have decreased the amount of spending to “indigent defense,” funding that allows public defenders to provide representation.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, state governments decreased funding by 2 percent ($45 million) to indigent defense between 2011 and 2012.

Some of the cases Carson said the office sees are based on desperation related to their poverty, but many are crimes to “fuel the addiction,” he said.

“There are some that steal to feed their family, and some situations in which people become so desperate that they commit crime,” Carson said. “But there is that level of crime, too, where the crime is the addiction (drug possession) or the addiction is causing the crime.”