The Sarpy County Public Defender’s office stopped accepting misdemeanor appointments beginning Monday.

Sarpy County Public Defender Tom Strigenz announced the change in a Nov. 4 letter to the county’s judges and administration, citing increasing workloads for assistant public defenders.

Major felony cases such as those with murder and sexual assault charges are driving the decision, Strigenz said, because as the county’s population grows his office is handling more cases, particularly those that require more time, and he has to make sure his clients are “zealously represented.”

On Jan. 1, three assistant public defenders will be moved from the misdemeanor division to cover felony cases in either Sarpy County District Court or Sarpy County Juvenile Court. They will finish out any misdemeanor cases on which they had been appointed.

“I did not do this lightly,” Strigenz said in an interview. “I did not do it without consultation.”

Over the past 12 months Strigenz’s office has been appointed to felony cases that include 12 charges for first degree sexual assault of a child; 26 charges for use of a weapon to commit a felony; four for second degree murder; one for conspiracy to commit first degree murder; and one for attempted first degree murder, among others.

Private council will be appointed to any misdemeanor cases on which the county is required to provide legal defense. The county has two law firms that accept defense cases in conflict cases.

“No one will go without legal council,” Strigenz said.

Strigenz signaled he was considering the switch in March and again during the summer when the county was developing its budget for the current fiscal year, which began July 1.

In his budget appeal, he requested that $153,587 be added to his office’s budget to add two public defenders, a request the Sarpy County Board of Commissioners denied.

The county last added an assistant public defender in 2014, when it increased the number of assistants from seven to eight, where it has remained, although the office has received additional part-time and support staff.

Sarpy County Board Chairman Don Kelly said it may be more expensive long term to lean on private legal council and acknowledged it was likely the public defender’s office had a larger caseload since the county is growing.

He said the County Board needs to manage the county’s expenses and adding staff is expensive.

“We watch the numbers really close, but we’re reluctant to add staffing because it costs money,” he said.

Strigenz will request three assistant public defenders for the 2020-21 fiscal year and will resume accepting misdemeanor appointments if that request is granted, according to the letter to judges.

In an interview, Strigenz referenced Lancaster County’s case management system as an example of a way to ensure public defenders are able to provide adequate legal representation to their clients.

Lancaster County tracks case openings for each attorney at the beginning of each fiscal year and stops assigning cases to attorneys once they reach certain thresholds for their case type each month.

That system is based on a 2008 workload assessment that tracked caseloads and time spent on different types of cases and tasks, like time with clients and legal research.

Sarpy County’s assistant public defender salaries were increased to match those of deputy county attorneys beginning Jan. 1, 2019.

The board approved the pay hikes on Sept. 11, 2018, when it also passed a resolution to prohibit assistant public defenders to also work in private practice.

Strigenz said some of his assistants may have worked in private practice on the side but all of them worked full-time and had full caseloads at the defender’s office.

Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.