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Public Defender's Office coming to Montgomery County court system

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

Aylia McKee is building Montgomery County's first Public Defender's Office from the ground up. 

"We will represent all or most of the indigent defendants here in this particular circuit, those people who are charged who cannot afford their own representation," she said. 

McKee started her legal career in the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office and for 6.5 years, worked as a federal defense attorney in Montgomery.

She was selected to establish the county's new public defender's office and hire its staff, including attorneys, paralegals, investigators, legal assistants and administrative and other clerical staff.

The state committed $2.2 million to fund the office, including salaries, benefits and office supplies. The Montgomery County Commission has provided the historic Greil mansion next to the county courthouse on Lawrence Street to house its staff. 

Under a 2011 law, all judicial circuits in the state had to establish what their defense delivery system would be. McKee says the circuit court judges in the 15th circuit moved for the creation of a public defender's office and the Indigent Defense Advisory Committee, led by Montgomery County Presiding Circuit Judge Charles Price and compromised of other private bar attorneys, chose her to be the director. 

McKee says the public defender's office will have a client-centered approach and staff members, including social workers and client advocates, who will look beyond the criminal cases they're handling. 

"We have to learn each one of our clients and know what social, economic and environmental issues have led them to be our client but those are also the same issues too that we have to focus on outside of the criminal case so that before they go back into the community, there's been some attention paid to the problems that brought them here," she told WSFA.

The new public defender's office will replace the current system of judges appointing lawyers for indigent defendants. Right now, private lawyers who are under contract with the judicial circuit are appointed to represent indigent defendants. There are two attorneys in each courtroom in the six circuit courtrooms and one contract attorney in district court.

McKee says the public defender's office will be more efficient and cost saving and that the centralized office will streamline the process for the judges, clients and the court in general. 

"The attorneys in this office will be able to handle upwards of a 150 cases a year and those are felony cases. They will be paid a set salary regardless of how long it takes those cases or the complexity of those when typically without a centralized public defender office, is that attorneys on an hourly basis so obviously a case that is more complex, will take a much longer time, will require multiple court appearances and that's all before trial begins. Those kinds of cases can be very costly when you begin to add them up on an individual case basis," she explained. 

McKee is currently looking to hire seasoned attorneys who will work as her deputy attorneys in the Public Defender's Office. 

She hopes to have her key staff in place by the end of next month. 

At full capacity, the public defender's office will have a staff of about 30 people, with between 16-18 attorneys. 

McKee does not yet have a set date when the office will start taking cases. 

The public defender's office will be phased in to the courtrooms in Montgomery County and as the office takes on more cases, the contract attorneys will be phased out. But McKee says there is still going to be a lot of work and responsibility for private attorneys. They will be needed to help handle any conflict cases or cases with multiple defendants. 

"I think a public defender's office in Montgomery County can be a good thing. I think with the proper leadership and the training and oversight that this will actually make our system a better system and will provide better representation in the long run for these criminal defendants," said Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey.

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