JACKSBORO, TN. (WLAF)- “We have a duty to counsel people.”
That is how Eighth Judicial District Public Defender Leif Jeffers described the functions of his office.
Under state law, the public defender’s office represents people who can’t afford to hire an attorney. The court doesn’t accept the face value of someone’s income in order to have the public defender’s office appointed. The defendant must complete a form outlining their income, expenses, etc. “The affidavit of indigency is “subject to perjury,” Jeffers said. Defendants using the public defender’s services are charged an administrative fee, usually $50, which is paid as part of their court costs. Those funds are filtered into a state fund, not the local office, Jeffers said.
The only reason the public defender’s office would not represent someone, when financial need is there, is if a conflict exists.
And looking at the number of cases Jeffer’s office is handling, it doesn’t appear many conflicts are arising.
The Eighth Judicial District is comprised of Campbell, Claiborne, Union, Fentress and Scott counties. Across the district, the public defender’s office has had 1,269 cases assigned to it since July 1, 2022. These are cases in criminal, general sessions and juvenile court.
Campbell County accounts for the largest portion of those cases with 893. For Jeffers and his staff of 10 attorneys, it feels like they are triaging cases.
“Having enough time to devote to each case to investigate and work it,” is the largest obstacle the public defender’s office faces,” Jeffers said.
In Campbell County, there are more law enforcement agencies bringing cases than in any other part of the district.
“The number of cases we get in Campbell County is over half what we get district wide,” he said. Jeffers is not complaining about this, in fact he is proud of the work his staff does with the cases. “I would put us up against anybody, anytime.”
Joining the public defender’s office takes a certain propensity.
“You have to be the right kind of person to do it,” Jeffers said. “This is not self- serving in any kind of way.” With a starting salary of $67,000 a year, the same for an entry level assistant district attorney, private practice could be more lucrative. In the last year, both offices saw a 15 percent increase in salary.
“We are all here because we want to be,” Jeffers said.
He has two offices. One in Campbell and one in Scott. The attorneys work out of these offices when they are not in court.
Looking at the totality of cases, Jeffers said drugs “are in the background of everything.”
“Drugs are involved in a disproportionate number,” he said.
The goal of the public defender’s office is to ensure their clients are represented well.
Speaking for the defendant is what the public defender’s office does. “We work for the client,” he said.
Showing clients the case they are facing, what they are charged with and how the evidence stacks up is what the public defender’s office is there for.
“We show them the proof and get their thoughts,” Jeffers said.
Given the number of cases in court, trying to resolve the case outside of a trial is the goal. “There is no way to try every case,” Jeffers said. “We do a good job of trying to resolve as many cases as we can.”
(WLAF NEWS PUBLISHED 8/7/2023- 6AM)