The city’s top public defender says her office is overworked and understaffed, but she doesn’t think it’s Metro’s responsibility to fix it.
Speaking at a budget hearing Tuesday, Dawn Deaner pointed out that — like the district attorney — her office serves primarily a state function. Public defenders are tasked with representing defendants facing criminal charges who can’t afford to hire a lawyer.
In the past, Deaner says funding was split evenly between state and local government. But in recent years, Metro has been footing the bill for almost two-thirds of the expenses. But they're still struggling to meet the demand.
"It is important for us that we are not representing too many people. If we don’t have the time it requires to represent our clients well," says Deaner, "that reduces the quality of our representation."
Deaner says she has requested an increase of $1.2 million from the state — money to pay for more lawyers, administrative personnel and investigators. The office is currently short a total of 23 staff members in those positions based on their current caseload.
While the agency is not asking Metro to bankroll those positions, Deaner did take the opportunity to highlight what they have been able to accomplish, including a number of new initiatives implemented in the past year. Those include the development of a pretrial risk assessment tool with the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office, which helps identify low-level defendants to wait for trial outside of jail.
The public defender is also launching "Steering Clear" to help restore driving privileges for thousands of low-income Tennesseans. That program, which Deaner says should be piloted in the coming months, is also supported by the city’s courts, district attorney, and law enforcement.
Deaner won’t be seeking re-election as the city’s top public defender after a decade on the job and more than 20 years in the agency. She was accompanied at Tuesday's budget hearing by Martesha Johnson, who is running to replace her in August.