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PD says his office needs more lawyers — specifically, one to handle juvie matters

Public Defender, Michael White

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA —  Public Defender, Michael White says the Office of the Public Defender needs an attorney dedicated to defending juvenile clients. He also made it known that his office has seen a rise in cases that involve drugs, sexual assault, and domestic violence.

White’s statement was made during his office’s fiscal year 2019 budget hearing last week, where he also told the Fono Joint Budget Committee that the new fiscal year budget is almost identical to FY 2018, with “no major changes”.

Responding to committee questions, White says juvenile cases handled by his office are basically offenses with “public peace disturbance and we’re seeing an increase in juveniles charged with drug offenses.”

Regarding the FY 2019 proposed budget of $393,000 — White said, “quite frankly, we need more money” but because the budget was already prepared, with the assistance of the ASG Budget Office prior to him being confirmed as Public Defender, “I didn’t know if this was the time to ask for additional funds.”

“We need one lawyer dedicated to juvenile court cases,” White said in response to another question from the committee, adding that currently, the Attorney General’s Office has one lawyer who handles juvenile cases, but “we have no counterpart” at the PD’s Office.

Lawyers in the PD’s Office handle all the cases, with no one solely dedicated to juvenile cases, he reiterated.

“I feel that, this is an area that is worth the money for the investment because we can say that half of these young children now would be doing society a great service in the future; but these kids are right on the edge of getting into criminal activity and we can curb it — counsel them and encourage them, to show them — that is not a way of life for them,” he said.

“And if we could have one lawyer to completely concentrate on that area, I think that would be a worthwhile investment for the future of American Samoa,” he said.

Rep. Vesi T. Fautanu said, there “are a lot of folks in jail right now” who shouldn’t be there; and he believes this is happening due to inadequate legal representation by the PD’s Office.

“I believe we provide excellent representation for our clients,” White responded. “It’s a matter of not having enough resources to handle the volume that we have. I have noticed in particular, there’s been a big increase in the amount of drug cases that have been brought before us for representation. There’s also an increase in domestic violence cases… and also an increase in child sexual abuse cases.”

Vesi responded, “I think that’s the problem... not enough resources and I’m kind of concerned with the representation” by the PD’s Office.

According to White, the office has four attorney positions, including the Public Defender, who is the director of the PD’s Office. 

And currently there are only two attorneys, including the Public Defender, on staff. The third attorney will start early next month while a fourth one has accepted the position but is not expected to join the PD team until later next month.

In his “opinion” the PD’s Office needs four attorneys — aside from the Public Defender — and a dedicated one to handle juvenile cases.

“We also handle civil commitment hearings [in court] and the Attorney General’s Office has one lawyer dedicated to handle those cases, and we have no counterpart in that area also,” White told the committee, noting that civil commitment cases are “very difficult to handle.”

The PD’s Office provides legal representation to indigent criminal defendants in misdemeanor, felony, traffic, immigration and juvenile cases, and other matters as directed and appointed by the Court.