Franklin and Benton counties may soon use a Dallas, Texas, company to help determine whether people who apply for indigent legal defense are eligible to receive it.
Eric Hsu, indigent defense coordinator for the two counties, said the counties will try out the services of the company, called D-Med Corp., on a trial basis this summer.
"They provide a software-based screening system," Hsu told Franklin County commissioners, "that uses some artificial intelligence algorithms and credit scores to basically verify that a person who comes in and applies for indigent defense is providing accurate information."
Commissioner Brad Peck said he would want D-Med's screenings to be used only as a tool, and for people to make the ultimate decision about whether someone is eligible. Credit scores can be misleading, he said.
"People who don't borrow money don't necessarily have great credit scores, but they may not borrow money because they don't need to," Peck said.
During the test period, D-Med will provide the service for 250 indigent defense screening cases in each county so the counties will see how it works, Hsu said.
It's important to accurately screen people who apply for public defense to make sure those who can afford to hire private counsel aren't receiving public money, Hsu said. Those who receive indigent defense when they don't need it draw resources away from the ones who do, he said.
"When you've got only so much money to go to the system and it's diluted, ... the people who really need it are going to suffer," he said.
A new report the state Office of Public Defense released last week indicated Benton County spent $2.2 million on indigent defense in 2007. Franklin County spent $808,000.
The public defense office this year will use all the money it's budgeted and could use more, Hsu said. Later this year, it'll ask Franklin County to supplement its budget, in part to cover the high costs of several homicide trials, he said.
If the counties adopt the services of D-Med or a similar company, the screening system would be part of a new process for assigning public defense attorneys, Hsu said. Currently, defendants in Franklin and Benton counties are assigned or denied public counsel in court.
Hsu said he hoped to implement a model where defendants are screened for indigence out of court. That would allow more of an opportunity to determine if the defendant could contribute to some of the cost of his or her defense, even if indigent funding is required to cover the remainder.
Currently, defendants' attorneys typically are either completely publicly funded or not at all, Hsu said.