MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WBOY) — The 17th Judicial Circuit Public Defender Corporation held a ribbon-cutting ceremony and open house Thursday at its headquarters on Spruce Street in Morgantown. Members of the board spoke about how they established the newly opened corporation.
“It’s a process that starts in Charleston. The corporation has to be activated and the legislature has to approve the funding. So, we work closely with WV Public Defender Services, once we were notified that we had been activated, the next step is the governor making an appointment,” said Michael Simms, Chairperson of the Board of Directors for the 17th Judicial Circuit Public Defender Corporation. “I was fortunate enough to get that appointment from the governor in April of 2021, and that is how long we’ve been working.”
The public defender corporation was established to ensure access to justice for people experiencing poverty. Members added that they respect the dignity of all by working toward positive social change by providing legal assistance and advancing laws to address many critical needs of those who are disadvantaged and facing criminal, abuse and neglect, or other legal matters.
“We have started taking cases, and we almost have a full staff here now, ideally, we are going to have maybe 16 people, 17 people, working at this office, eight or nine lawyers, and the rest being support staff, but they have already started taking cases,” Simms said. “The way that it works is when someone qualifies for court-appointed counsel here in Monongalia County the court system notifies us, the public defender office, and then we make conflicts check first and foremost, and then if there is no conflict then we would take that person in as a client, we notify them and we go from there.”
Representatives of the corporation stated the public defender corporation is a being in Morgantown and close to the states, only law school may provide opportunities for law students to see what it is actually like to work a case. The Morgantown location is the 20th public defender corporation in the state being the most recent one to be activated.
“There is going to be a holistic approach to managing clients here. We are going to hopefully have the peer recovery coach working with us, we are going have maybe a social worker here,” Simms said. “The idea is we want to help people. We want to give them excellent legal representation, but we also want them to remedy whatever circumstances brought them into the legal system and reintegrate successfully back into the community.”
They also have a small collection of clothes that the lawyers and staff have donated themselves so that clients have proper clothing to wear when appearing in court.