INDIANAPOLIS — If you’re a victim of a crime or accused of a crime, you may be waiting even longer for justice — if you get justice at all.
That’s because a growing attorney shortage in our state is impacting the criminal justice system.
Compared to the national average, Indiana has a third of the attorneys it should.
WRTV Investigates is looking at solutions to the state’s lawyer shortage.
Rural Justice Initiative aims to generate interest
Wide open spaces, farms and friendly neighbors.
Rural Indiana is special, but it’s also the hardest hit by the state’s attorney shortage.
You can see from this map, many rural counties have only a handful of attorneys to help the population with their legal needs — including criminal, civil, divorces, wills and estates.
Mario Reyes worked for the court system in White County, a rural county in northwest Indiana and home to Indiana Beach.
"There's quite a shortage of lawyers in the area,” said Reyes. “Most of the attorneys are older in White County."
Reyes said he witnessed the impact of the attorney shortage on the people who live in White County.
“I saw a lot of the Hispanic population at the mercy of the criminal justice system because there weren't any attorneys that spoke Spanish,” said Reyes.
Reyes’ work was part of the Rural Justice Initiative, a program at IU McKinney School of Law launched back in 2019, which places students to work with judges, prosecutors and public defenders.
“We have a mismatch of where people want to work and where there are jobs,” said Professor Joel Schumm, who leads the initiative. “The problem has gotten worse in recent years and is likely to get worse.”
The goal of the Rural Justice Initiative is to get law students interested in working in rural counties.
Students commit to working at least 200 hours for which they receive three experiential learning credits and a $4,000 stipend.
So far, about 30 students at IU McKinney have participated, and of those that have graduated from law school, several have accepted offers or are currently working in rural counties.
“Raising awareness is part of it,” said Schumm. “Hopefully we look back in a few years and see that some of these students will end up working in that county or another rural county nearby."
IU’s Maurer School of Law in Bloomington offers a similar program.
Hybrid format hopes to attract more students to law school
In fall 2023, IU McKinney in Indianapolis became the first Indiana law school to offer its degree program in a hybrid format.
The hybrid format allows students to attend class partially online and come to IU McKinney only two nights a week instead of five nights a week.
IU McKinney has had an evening program for decades, but it’s always required in-person attendance five nights a week.
“I think this is going to open the door to some students who before would have thought it impossible to get a law degree,” said Schumm. “It makes it possible for them to not have to be here as many hours. It’s manageable two nights a week.”
Student Thomas Estabrook is taking advantage of the hybrid program, traveling twice a week from Knox County.
Estabrook is the mayor of Bicknell, a city with no attorneys — a shortage that inspired Estabrook to get his law degree.
"If law school was easy, everybody would do it and in rural communities there may not be the opportunity that there is in a bigger city,” said Estabrook.
Lawmakers look at solutions to attorney shortage
WRTV Investigates took concerns about the state’s attorney shortage to state senator Aaron Freeman.
Freeman is a former Marion County deputy prosecutor.
- WRTV Investigates: What are state lawmakers doing about this problem?
- Freeman: The short answer is, I’ve tried to do what I can do.
- WRTV Investigates: It’s safe to say something needs to be done.
- Freeman: Yes, myself others continue to take shots at this.
Freeman authored Senate Bill 280 which would have set up minimum salary requirements for prosecutors.
The bill would have also established an Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Commission (similar to the Indiana Public Defender Commission), which would be tasked with setting workload standards and staffing ratios that prosecutor’s offices would have to follow to be eligible for reimbursement from the state.
However, the bill failed to make it out of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“It’s always a challenge at the legislature,” said Freeman.
Sen. Freeman also cosponsored House Bill 1605, which was aimed at recruiting and retaining public defenders by allowing them to receive retirement benefits similar to what prosecutors receive.
However, that bill also failed to advance out of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
WRTV Investigates sent multiple requests to speak with Sen. Ryan Mishler, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, about the attorney shortage issue and we are still waiting to hear back.
- WRTV Investigates: Can you refile a bill?
- Freeman: The short answer is yes.
The 2024 legislative session is a non-budget year, which will make it difficult to accomplish anything regarding the state’s attorney shortage that has financial implications for the state.
However, Freeman is hopeful.
“It’s something we need to talk about. I don't think the state is going to have a magic bullet here, but i think we can do some things that can help,” said Freeman. “Moving a retirement plan from one to the other is something we should be able to do in a non-budget year. That makes some common sense.”
On October 25, the Interim Study Committee on Corrections and Criminal Code heard from several witnesses and the committee determined there is an attorney shortage in Indiana.
A legislator can use that information to draft a piece of legislation to address the issue.
WRTV Investigates is not aware of any bills in the works for the 2024 legislative session related to the attorney shortage.
“We have to stop prosecuting so many cases”: Defense attorney says focus should be on violent crime
Stacy Uliana is a private defense attorney in Bargersville, yet she handles public defender cases for counties in need of help.
She says to address the attorney shortage, the state needs to focus on prosecuting violent crimes rather than nonviolent crimes.
“There is a point where you’re going to have to stop prosecuting so many cases and we as a society have to pick what is a crime and what is a mental health problem, what is a drug addiction problem,” said Uliana.
The state keeps adding mental health, problem solving and drug courts, but the courts need attorneys to handle those cases.
“The underlying problem is we are sending too many people through the criminal justice system and we can’t handle it,” said Uliana. “What’s clogging up our criminal justice system are people who should be getting treatment.”
Uliana said our state needs a more robust system to treat mental illness.
“If we could convert those people to a different system, that would open up more time and money to investigate the people who are causing criminal activity,” said Uliana.
Other solutions could ease lawyer shortage
Indiana counties now have access to hundreds of thousands of dollars that can be used to help address the attorney shortage.
During the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers enacted a new local income tax referred to as the judicial local income tax.
Counties can use a small percentage to pay for staffing of the court system including:
- Judicial Courts
- Prosecutor’s Offices
- Public Defender Offices
- Probation Department
- Community Corrections
Other solutions in the works include:
- Loan forgiveness program for lawyers
- Better use of technology including allowing attorneys/clients to appear via computer rather than in person
- Improving affordability of law school
- Providing stipends or incentives to attorneys working in rural counties
- Exploring alternative models to law licensure
- Addressing legal deserts and lack of access to law schools
Reyes said he will consider working in a rural county when he graduates in 2026.
He is interested in criminal law and currently lives in West Lafayette with his family.
“I think I can start the change,” said Reyes. “I can help shine the light on the benefits of rural counties for some of the younger people."