Liberty County commissioners have agreed to add to the short-handed public defender’s budget.
Commissioners approved an additional $65,000 to the public defender’s office for its budget.
Brandon Clark, the chief public defender for the Atlantic Judicial Circuit, which includes Liberty County, said it has been a busy and challenging year for his office.
“Our largest challenge is finding staff,” he said. “It’s real hard to find lawyers. I’m down a few positions and have been for a while. Hopefully, we’ll find some people soon.”
The office closed 28% more cases last year than it did the previous year when it was not fully open because of COVID-19 restrictions, Clark told commissioners. The number of revocation hearings has gone up 70%.
“A lot of those just didn’t happen during the shutdown,” Clark said.
Public defenders handled 786 felony cases in Liberty County alone for 2022. Liberty County also was responsible for 60% (611) of the circuit’s 1,025 misdemeanor cases, but has just 38.2% of the circuit’s total population.
Clark asked for a 2% increase in existing funding to cover the cost of benefits, with the rest going to salary increases for his current lawyers.
“I’m trying not to lose people to other circuits,” he said.
One of the primary drivers is the salaries public defenders can make in Fulton County, which is offering $100,000 a year to its public defenders. While Clark pointed out he is not in direct competition with Fulton County, it does have an effect.
He also told commissioners he believes his salaries and benefits are competitive with Chatham County’s larger circuit.
By the caseloads in the circuit, Clark’s figures said his office should have just over 13 attorneys. His office has 19 total employees “The people I have are great and they work hard,” he said.
County commissioners also approved the sale of five acres off Airport Road to the Georgia Forestry Commission, for a total sale price of $50,000.
County Administrator Joey Brown said the forestry commission plans to consolidate its Liberty and Long units at that site.
“They have already approved bonds and are ready to go,” he said.