A Rare Report...

At last, a decent story about a public defender! Ok, so it comes from a small corner of Northwest Arkansas, but still...

BENTONVILLE -- This holiday season, Robert Lee is drawing encouragement and hope from an unexpected source: his attorney in a drug case.

When Lee was jailed last spring, suspected of manufacturing methamphetamine, his life and 22-year marriage went into a tailspin.

Public Defender Jay Saxton Talks to a Client

Lee is like nine of every 10 people accused of a felony in Northwest Arkansas -- he has a court-appointed attorney.

"I talked to eight attorneys; they all told me the same thing, 'This is what is going to happen (with your case).'" Private attorney fees would cost $3,000 to $12,000, and Lee couldn't afford them.

Not having been in trouble before, he went reluctantly to the Benton County Public Defender's Office. "I thought I'd be like roadkill, where the city scoops you up and throws you in the trash."

As his drug case unfolds, Lee admits he lives "on pins and needles. You have so many things running through your mind, and you have no control over what's going to happen. But the brightest spot of all this is (public defender) Jay Saxton. For the most part, he has kept me 'up.'"

Behind the scenes, about 180 public defender attorneys in Arkansas churn out defenses for 73,000 people a year. The state took over responsibility for paying staff attorneys in 1998, but much of each office's success in managing caseloads depends on contributions from local counties.

Benton County pays for three extra attorneys -- and Washington County supports one part-time and one full-time attorney. That keeps down caseloads, which soar to more than 800 per attorney in other parts of the state such as Pulaski, Perry, Jefferson and Lonoke counties.

Benton County keeps caseloads below 300 per attorney and Washington County below 400.

"Jay always makes time when I need it," Lee said of his attorney. "He's like a Matlock to me. I think I'm better off than with a private attorney. You're really a person; they get to know you. They care about people; that's why they'll take a lower-paying job."

Lisa Parks, a deputy public defender who's worked in both counties, said she loves the job because "this is the lowest point in people's lives, but typically it doesn't define who they are. Often, this is the first time (defendants) ever had anyone listen or speak for them. Even when they end up in prison, they know somebody fought for them."

Taking money out of the picture may strengthen the relationship, Parks said.

Kudos to Robin Mero of The Morning News, a local Arkansas newspaper, for defying the stereotypes by writing and reporting this story.

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