Public Defenders To Represent Mentally Ill

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) - Mentally ill patients facing court-ordered involuntary commitment in central Kentucky will have attorneys at their sides after a judge forced the state's public defenders to take the cases.

Fayette District Judge Joe Bouvier ordered the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy to take the cases after the office said it would stop handling civil commitment cases from Fayette County.

Public defenders withdrew from those cases earlier this month because of budget cuts passed by the General Assembly.

The arrangement may be a temporary one, though, as the public defenders and all six judges in Fayette District Court are scheduled to meet Monday about how to better handle the situation.

The arrangement is one of several new developments since July 1, when public defenders in most counties began withdrawing from certain types of cases in the aftermath of a $2.3 million budget cut passed by the General Assembly.

At Monday's hearing, public defenders will put on evidence to justify their decision to withdraw from juvenile status offender cases - which involve acts that aren't crimes for adults, such as smoking or truancy - because of budget cuts.

"We're going to be fighting the fight wherever we need to demonstrate to people that we're not making this stuff up," DPA trial division director Damon Preston said. "(DPA's budget of) $37.8 million just isn't enough to spread through the whole state and cover 148,000 cases."

Fayette County Attorney Larry Roberts said he'll be at the hearing to oppose the service reduction."I'll be there guns blazing," he said.

Public defenders sued the state over the budget cuts on June 30. DPA is attempting to force either the state finance cabinet or the General Assembly to spend more on indigent defense. It contends that current funding levels are unconstitutional.

Last week's agreement over civil commitment cases came after Bouvier sharply criticized state public defenders in a June 3 order.

Civil commitment cases are cases where the government alleges that a person is dangerously mentally ill and asks a judge to force the person into treatment at a state mental institution.

"This Court finds it unconscionable that the Department (of) Public Advocacy would abandon its most vulnerable clients in order to make a point over a budgetary dispute," Bouvier wrote in a blunt, strongly worded four-page order.

Bouvier said the Department of Public Advocacy might have more money and manpower to handle cases if its lawyers weren't publishing newsletters and the agency's bimonthly magazine, The Advocate.

Public Advocacy head Ernie Lewis said Bouvier is not in a position to know what the agency's priorities should be.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

AP-NY-07-13-08 1357EDT

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