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Public defenders office shaping up

NATCHEZ — Officials discussed arrangements for the new public defenders office during Monday’s regularly scheduled meeting of the Adams County Board of Supervisors.

The proposed budget for a public defender’s office is estimated to cost approximately $320,000 per year and would be used to assign county-paid attorneys to indigent defendants in Circuit Court, misdemeanor and drug court cases.

Jefferson County attorney Jeffery Harness, who has been a public defender in Adams County since 2012, manages the office, he said.

Harness was appointed by Sixth District Circuit Judge Lillie Blackmon Sanders as the county’s chief public defender to manage the public defenders office, which will be comprised of himself, four other attorneys and a secretary.

While the exact workings of the public defender’s office have not been set by the Board of Supervisors, Harness said he believes the new system would be more efficient and less costly to the county.

“We have begun to create a system that is not only going to be beneficial to the county that is less costly to your budget … but we’re also creating a system that is better for the client,” he said.

Harness said he appointed attorneys Zachary Jex, Tim Blalock, Lydia Blackmon and Aisha Sanders to work with him as Adams County public defenders.

“I feel like these individuals are going to affectively represent their clients and would best serve Adams County,” Harness said.

With the previous system, an average of 10 different lawyers were assigned to indigent cases by the court. The new system cuts the total number of public defenders in half.

Adams County Attorney Scott Slover said, in the past, the board had been receiving complaints from clients who said they were not property represented by the court-appointed lawyers. Some defendants claimed they were not able see their lawyers until the day of their plea, Slover said before asking how the new system would remedy the issue.

“One reason for that was we had attorneys who were just not dedicated to the job,” Harness said. “I believe the people that I’ve chosen to serve are going to be dedicated to their clients and have a very good work ethic. Number two, we are all part time public defenders and everyone on this list has a private practice as well. We only have so much time to dedicate to each person. Every client seems to have the idea that they are your only client.”

Harness said he studied similar public defenders’ offices in Pike and Lincoln counties and believes a solution would be to have at least one day a month set aside for public defenders to meet with their clients either in the county jail or elsewhere if their clients are out on bond.

“There wouldn’t be anymore ‘I haven’t seen my attorney’ complaints,” Harness said.

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