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Venango officials dispute criticism of public defender

Friday, June 08, 2001

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Venango County's solicitor insisted yesterday that the county warden does not review applications for free legal service made by inmates in the county jail.

"Our warden does not review applications for the public defender's office for indigence," Solicitor George Thompson said.

He was responding to allegations made by a consultant for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is threatening to sue Venango County if it doesn't improve its public defender program.

The program provides free legal services to poor criminal defendants.

But Witold Walczak, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Greater Pittsburgh, said jail inmates confirmed the findings of Marshall Hartman, a nationally recognized expert on the rights of the indigent, who visited Venango County on March 30.

"We talked to four inmates [Wednesday] and they all said they had to turn in their applications to the jail warden," Walczak said.

He said inmates also said they can make collect calls to private lawyers but not to the public defender's office.

Yesterday, Thompson said there were numerous inaccuracies in Hartman's report about Venango's public defender program, which was prepared for the ACLU. He said Venango officials plan to hire their own consultant to study their public defender program, which he believes is constitutionally adequate.

Hartman said he found that defendants who don't have any money can sit in jail for three to 10 days without ever talking to legal counsel and 90 percent of the incarcerated defendants are not interviewed by the public defender until the day of the preliminary hearing.

On Monday, the ACLU and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers sent Venango County officials a letter demanding that they hire more public defenders, an investigator and a social worker, and that they stop allowing the warden to review inmate applications for free legal assistance.

In a statement, the Venango commissioners said that changes in the public defender's office proposed by the ACLU and criminal lawyers association would cost $400,000 annually and require a 10 percent tax increase. "Our first duty is to safeguard our taxpayers -- and we intend to do that vigorously," the statement said.

"We are a county of limited resources," Thompson said. "I don't want you to get the impression that Venango County does not care about indigent defense."

Thompson also criticized the ACLU for sending Venango a letter that included a threat to sue in the "first meaningful communication" sent to the county.

Walczak bristled at those statements. He said the U.S. Constitution requires a county or state to fund free lawyers for indigent inmates. He doesn't think the Constitution includes a provision to keep taxes low.

"The next time, we will just file the lawsuit and dispense with the formalities," Walczak said.

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