State Rep. Rich Golick, who chairs a key House committee, said Friday the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council and other legal groups will spend the rest of the year trying to "strike a proper balance" to control costs. But he said if they are unable to reach a consensus, lawmakers could be forced to step in during next year's legislative session.
"Doing nothing is not an option. The way things are going on currently is not sustainable for the future. Failure is not an option," said Golick, who chairs the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee. "If this bogs down, then the General Assembly will be forced to bring a solution on its own."
Transferring parts of the system back to county control would reverse one of the state's most ambitious civil justice programs in years. Lawmakers created the statewide system in 2003 to replace the hodgepodge of public defender offices, which critics said were consistently unprepared to represent Georgia's poor defendants.
"It would be step back in the wrong direction," said Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights, one of the system's biggest critics. "It just makes for a very splintered and inconsistent system."
The ailing public defender system has struggled almost since its start in 2005, faced with the costly trial of courthouse gunman Brian Nichols, tepid support from lawmakers and a souring economy. Now the state can't afford to pay to defend the accused in several death penalty cases, leaving them to wait in jail for years for their trials to start.
Frustrated civil rights groups have tried to force changes by peppering the system with a flurry of lawsuits, including a recent case that claimed the state was refusing to provide attorneys for dozens of convicted criminals seeking appeals.
One of the thorniest issues involves so-called conflict cases - those with multiple defendants. Legislative leaders have suggested shifting those cases to the counties because they say they can be better managed locally. A new $100 fine on criminal cases has been suggested to pay for the transfers.
Golick said he hasn't ruled out the idea of a legislative solution, but he said he's confident the public defenders, the State Bar of Georgia and other legal experts can help hash out a compromise. The Smyrna Republican cautioned, though, that the flurry of lawsuits only complicates their efforts.
"There are some folks that are more interested in grabbing cheap headlines and doing some very public chest-beating while simultaneously doing something I think they hope will bring the system to its knees and force a solution," he said. "I think the adversarial nature will only marginalize their relevance."
But Bright, whose center has filed several of the complaints, say they are aimed at helping the system survive the long haul.
"The fact of the matter is they have never provided adequate funding for the system," he said. "And if you're going to provide adequate representation to people, it requires resources."