If you’re arrested, you will be read your Miranda Rights, which state in part, “You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.” That’s a public defender. Hamilton County’s Public Defender Felony Division, for instance, is staffed with 20 public defenders. Each has 35 to 65 cases open at any one time, meaning that clients might not receive counsel directly from them but from one of approximately 110 private attorneys serving the division who have been contracted by the Hamilton County Public Defender’s office, which also represents clients in misdemeanor, juvenile, drug court, and appeal cases. Like all of Ohio’s 88 counties, Hamilton County public defenders are funded 45 percent by the state legislature and 55 percent by the county; the state used to cover 48 percent of costs but reduced its contribution over the past two years.
Rodney Harris left 16 years of private law practice to become Felony Division Director, and after nearly four years of supervising staff and contract attorneys and counseling his own cases, he stays focused on raising the standard for public defense in Cincinnati and beyond.
What is your day-to-day role? If I don’t have a court appearance, my typical day-to-day is bouncing from courtroom to courtroom, making sure the attorneys are getting there in a timely fashion, making sure the attorneys are on top of their game and doing what they’re supposed to do to represent their clients well.
Would you consider the public defense in Hamilton County underfunded? We could always use more. When I first got into this office, back in March 2014, the attorneys didn’t have actual offices. How does a person talk in confidence about their case when they’re in a cubicle? But we were able to get some funds in place so that offices were built. I think more funding would be helpful to make sure the playing field is balanced with the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s office.
How is funding being used today? We spend a lot of time and money to make sure the attorneys are properly trained. We’ve also gotten donations from a nonprofit group called Friends of the Indigent, who help us send attorneys down to the Gideon’s Promise program in Mississippi and to the Trial Practice Institute in Macon, Georgia.
Do you believe poor people are getting quality representation? I didn’t believe they were before. That’s a part of the reason I came here. But part of the problem I’m having now is, because we’ve been able to hire some very good attorneys, we’re getting picked off. Private offices are hiring our attorneys because they have good trial experience and they’re good attorneys.
Why are private offices hiring from your division? It’s easy to come and take one of our attorneys, who we’ve trained [and] put a lot of resources into and who’s gotten a lot of experience. Right now, my staff is short three attorneys—one is going to the Ohio Attorney General’s office.
Why did you make the opposite switch? Because there were so many people who looked like me that I didn’t think were represented properly, and I wanted to do what I could to improve that. That’s why I left a successful private practice. And I’m not by myself in this office.