YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – On Nov. 4, voters approved a sales tax issue in Mahoning County that renewed a 0.5 percent sales tax for five years and added another 0.25 percent for five years.
The commissioners were billing the tax as way to fund safety services, with the money being used to help pay for the county courts and jail. Every year, county officials know they have to set aside millions to run the criminal justice system.
‘We base if off last year and how many capital cases we know are coming,” Mahoning County Court Administrator Robert Regula said.
Right now, the county spends about $4 million annually just running the court system. That includes $2 million to run the district and county courts, including judicial salaries and office supplies. The $4 million does not include the cost to run the county jail.
It takes another $2 million just to pay for public defenders. That is equal to all of the sales tax paid at every hotel, bar and restaurant in the county for the entire year. And the county has to pay it.
“The United States Supreme Court and the Constitution are clear that those persons charged with crimes are entitled to a defense,” legal analyst Attorney Matthew Mangino said. “Sixty to 70 percent of cases are being handled by publicly-paid lawyers.”
The county has an indigent defense fund. Attorneys are on a rotation and are assigned cases by judges. There is a cap on how much attorneys will be paid for each case.
Murder and death penalty cases are the most expensive and they are always paid for on the public dime.
“The expense involved would be astronomical for anyone to even think of affording on their own,” Regula said.
“Someone is paying for this legal counsel and it is the taxpayers,” Mangino said.
The courts alone eat up more than 10 percent of how much the county brought in last year in sales tax. And the more arrests and the more criminals that are brought in off the street, the more the county has to pay.
“The more criminals that are caught and put through the system, it would probably increase the number of dollars needed to provide services,” Regula said.
Columbus Jones was at the center of one of the expensive trials of recent Mahoning County history. In 2011, he fired into a crowded fraternity house at Youngstown State University and killed a 25-year-old student and wounded several others.
More than one year and one two-week jury trial later, he was convicted of murder. The costs topped $50,000 just for the trial.
And don’t forget his jail bill. Before he was convicted, Jones spent 465 days in the Mahoning County Jail, which cost $37,000.
Add in the public defender’s bill at $22,000, another $11,000 for court reporters, $358 to transport him to state prison in Toledo and the total bill for this one case comes to more than $100,000. And all of it was paid for with tax dollars.