Public defender's office revamps in county and state

Overhauls are repairs to engines to make them run better.

If the state public defender's system was an engine, it now runs more effectively and efficiently, which is the miles per gallon measure for state agencies.

In June 2007, the General Assembly passed legislation to create a unified, statewide public defendants system.

All 46 counties in the state were part of the overhaul. The new system creates a public defender's office in each judicial circuit.

Previously, each judicial circuit contracted with local attorneys for indigent defense - legal counsel to those who cannot afford it.

Those private attorneys worked part-time, said Grant Gibbons. Gibbons is the new Chief Public Defender for the 2nd Judicial Circuit which includes Barnwell County.

"I think its going to be really great," Gibbons said of the new system.

Gibbons also said the legislation requires that the public defender's office have a juvenile division too.

Gibbons was appointed to his position in July 2008 and previously served 18 years with the solicitor's office in the 2nd circuit.

"The change in the public defender system has been needed for a long time and when this opportunity came available I thought it was time for me to try something else. Additionally, I think I have a unique perspective on how the criminal system has been working in our circuit, Gibbons said. "Now I can try to streamline the system and make efficient use of our limited resources."

What is the cost of the new system for the county?

The cost to the county will stay the same as when they contracted to provide a private part-time attorney, Gibbons said.

His office, a state office equal to the Solicitor's office, receives funding from each county they serve as well as funds from the state. In addition, his office will receive some funds from fines and fees collected from the state, he said.

Barnwell County is currently contributing $30,000 per year to the public defender's office. Bamberg County contributes $19,000, Gibbons said.

Gibbons said with the new system, the public defender's office is now comparable to the solicitor's office.

With his Barnwell office staff complete, Gibbons said in addition to himself, he has two full-time attorneys, a juvenile attorney and one paralegal.
Jason Price and Laura McCann, both attorneys, now occupy a three-room office in the county courthouse along with Sandra Dobson, their paralegal, Gibbons said.

Kelly Brown is the juvenile attorney for all three counties, he said.

Most cases will be handled by Price and McCann but Gibbons said he will assist in more serious cases.

"We're looking forward to working with Strom Thurmond (Jr.)," Gibbons said.

Thurmond was elected as the new solicitor when former Solicitor Barbara Morgan decided to retire.

Gibbons said he hopes under the new system, they will take care of cases more efficiently.

Price, formerly a law clerk in Aiken, comes to the office as a new attorney.

McCann, like Gibbons, worked with the solicitor's office for 18 years.

McCann said having criminal law experience is an advantage for public defender's as some aspects for criminal law are the same from the solicitor's side to the defender's side.

The types of cases the public defender's office handles will vary.

"It really does run the gamut," McCann said.

Price said they are involved in some magistrate court cases like criminal domestic violence and driving under the influence cases but most of their cases are slated for general sessions court.

Those cases can range from shoplifting to forgery, to assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature to murder, Price said.

Gibbons said his office will represent about 300 people in various cases at a time. Two-thirds of those cases are from Barnwell and the rest is from Bamberg.

Since July, the office has closed about 150 cases, Gibbons said.

Price said one misconception is that some people do not understand the heavy caseload the office carries.

"We have a heavy caseload," Price said, "We try to reach out to the clients as often as possible."

McCann said even though there are many spokes to the judicial wheel, with the new office, she hopes at least from the public defender's side things will move much faster.