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Statewide attorney shortage is putting public safety at risk, prosecutors say

Indiana has only 2.3 attorneys per 1,000 residents
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Posted at 2:57 PM, Dec 04, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-07 09:28:27-05

INDIANAPOLIS— Finding an attorney in Indiana can be difficult, and it’s about to get even harder, thanks to a growing lawyer shortage across the state.

We need attorneys for many things—wills, estates, business matters, divorces and if you’ve been injured or accused of a crime.

The national average is four lawyers for every 1,000 residents.

In Indiana, it’s much lower—averaging 2.3 attorneys per 1,000 residents—putting Indiana in the bottom 10 states for attorneys, according to the Indiana Supreme Court.

WRTV Investigates spent the past five months reviewing data and talking to people across the state, and what she found is an Attorney Shortage.

This map shows active attorneys, including judges, by county.

While Marion County has more than 6,000 lawyers, some counties only a handful— like Union County near the Ohio border—the county of 7,000 residents has a total of 5 attorneys.

No attorneys in Bicknell, Indiana

Bicknell is a city of 3,000 people located in Knox County.

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Thomas Estabrook has been the mayor for more than seven years.

“I say it's the greatest place in the world to live,” said Estabrook. “Small town. Of course, I grew up here."

Knox County has 39 active attorneys includes judges, records show, but none of them are in Bicknell.

“There is not an attorney practicing in Bicknell anymore,” said Estabrook. “Recently the one practicing attorney retired."

That means people who live in Bicknell have to drive 25 minutes to Vincennes for legal help or take other measures.

"There's a lot of folks who may have legal issues that may go unresolved or who may try to go at it on their own,” said Estabrook.

Rural areas are feeling the greatest impact of the state’s growing attorney shortage—one the mayor hopes to address.

Twice a week, Estabrook drives two hours to Indianapolis, or four hours roundtrip.

He attends IU McKinney School of Law two nights a week so he can become Bicknell’s only attorney.

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"There are a lot of people with legal needs that are being unmet just because there aren't enough attorneys,” said Estabrook. “The idea that you have to go to a big city to get a lot of work as an attorney is just not true. There is a lot of unrealized demand in rural areas."

He hopes to graduate in 2026.

Declining number of attorneys from Indiana law schools

Meanwhile, the number of attorneys coming out of Indiana law schools has been on the decline.

In 2017, Indiana had five law schools:

  • IU McKinney in Indianapolis
  • IU Maurer in Bloomington
  • Notre Dame in South Bend
  • Valparaiso University in Valparaiso
  • Indiana Tech in Fort Wayne

In 2017, 756 students graduated from Indiana law schools. Four years later, that number dropped to 599.
Indiana Tech closed its law school in June 2017.

Valparaiso closed in 2020, which according to this report from the Indiana Public Defender Commission, eliminated a law school that trained 18% of the attorneys practicing in Indiana.

Numbers show IU McKinney in Indianapolis is the only law school in the state producing Indiana lawyers at a high rate.

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In 2022, IU McKinney had 85% of its graduates working in Indiana.

Thomas Estabrook plans to be one of those graduates who stays in Indiana to practice law.

“I’m definitely interested in property, wills, and estates,” said Estabrook.

But he’s not interested in using his law degree to work in Indiana’s criminal justice system, which is the hardest hit by the state’s attorney shortage.

“Triage mode all the time”: Local prosecutors grapple with shortage

Brent Eaton is the prosecutor in Hancock County, a fast-growing county with nearly 80,000 residents.

Hancock County has a total of seven prosecutors.

"Everything is in triage mode, all of the time,” said Eaton.

They’re budgeted for eight prosecutors, but the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council (IPAC) says Hancock County should have 12 prosecutors to be adequately staffed for its caseload.

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"It affects public safety directly," said Eaton. “We are really under tight time constraints all the time. Then it begins to be difficult to have time to investigate things fully or completely or know everything you would ideally need to know before you make a filing decision.”

WRTV Investigates Kara Kenney asked Eaton if there are crimes in the community that are not charged because they don’t have enough prosecutors.

“Yes, we don't have enough manpower to really cooperatively work with law enforcement to see these investigations from the beginning so we can get all the evidence to be able to prosecute everything we would like to,” said Eaton.

For example, Eaton said he’d love to devote an attorney to a narcotics enforcement team.

“I don’t have the manpower,” said Eaton.

“We can’t keep up at this pace”: Deputy prosecutors burned out

The shortage is burning out the staff Eaton does have, like Chief Deputy Prosecutor Aimee Herring, who estimates she has worked 500 hours of unpaid overtime in 2023.

“We can’t keep up at this pace,” said Herring. “We're already in Crisis mode in our office. We're just treading water and it's only going to get worse."

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On the day WRTV Investigates tagged along with Herring, she was juggling court hearings, trainings, meetings and preparation.

"It's not just the in-court time and the caseload numbers. it's all the preparation time and all the extraneous things,” said Herring outside a Hancock County courtroom.

Herring spent more than six hours preparing for a child molester’s sentencing, including an argument to the judge for a stiff sentence.

"What we can do is make sure for the next 20 years the defendant has no access to these children or any others,” Herring told the judge.

Victims in limbo as cases take longer to resolve

The prosecutor shortage statewide also means cases can take longer to resolve, leaving victims in limbo.

"It affects our ability to get justice,” said Herring.

Jenny Wendt is a rape survivor from Hancock County.

She inspired Jenny’s Law, which in 2015 expanded the statute of limitations for rape in Indiana.

Wendt is concerned about the impact of the attorney shortage on victims of crime.

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“People are going to lose faith and they aren't going to feel safe,” said Wendt. “They're going to quit coming forward and this is going to lead to a very dangerous situation for our community."

Wendt emphasized victims of crimes are reliant on prosecutors to get justice.

“They’re working with a prosecutor and then they have to work with another prosecutor and start all over,” said Wendt. “I can’t even imagine how that would feel. I’m sure a lot of people will say forget it, never mind and lose faith forever in the justice system. That’s very bad for society.”

Groups sounding the alarm to lawmakers

Several groups have been sounding the alarm to state lawmakers including the Indiana Supreme Court and the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council (IPAC).

"Indiana has a lawyer shortage and its growing,” said Justin Forkner, the Indiana Supreme Court Chief Administrative Officer, to the Corrections and Criminal Code Committee on October 25. “It’s hitting us across the board.”

The average salary (not starting) for a deputy prosecutor in Indiana is $69,777, according to IPAC.

Meanwhile, the typical law school graduate carries $130,000 in education debt.

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"It's not only a public safety issue, but a potential grinding to a halt of the criminal justice system,” said Courtney Curtis, IPAC Assistant Executive Director, to lawmakers earlier this year. “We cannot stop the bleed if we cannot increase our salaries."

Dozens of counties have job openings posted for prosecutors— openings they struggle to fill.

Only 11% of Indiana counties have adequate staffing to meet its workload.

IPAC says Indiana needs 440 prosecutors to be adequately staffed, which would cost an estimated $53 million in state funding to rectify.

“Senators we can’t hire 440 attorneys, we know that,” Curtis told lawmakers. “But, setting a minimum salary and scales can help us stop the bleed and aid in recruiting.”

Bills that would have addressed the attorney shortage failed to advance during the 2023 legislative session.

“It’s like an arms race”: Counties compete with one another

Lawmakers took no action, leaving counties to compete with each other for attorneys who want to work in the criminal justice system.

“It’s like an arms race, it really is,” said Eaton. “It’s exceedingly difficult to find people. Lawyers have choices. People can make a really good living and not have to deal with gruesome evidence or traumatic events.”

In November, a deputy prosecutor left Hancock County for another county where the attorney will make $15-$20,000 more than in Hancock County.

In July, Eaton wrote a letter to the Hancock County Council begging for more funding in 2024 including enough for three more positions.

"Ultimately the council is going to have to make a decision,” said Eaton. “They want to have public safety that's among the best in the country or they continue to do things the way they're doing."

WRTV Investigates contacted the council members, and we are still waiting on a response.

Tuesday at 6 p.m., WRTV Investigates looks at the other side of the courtroom—public defenders and the accused. Find out how the attorney shortage is impacting people accused of crimes and the lawyers appointed to represent them.

Wednesday at 6 p.m., WRTV Investigates digs into solutions and what’s being done to address the state’s attorney shortage.