Written by David Shivers
Leisa Johnson has headed the Dougherty County Public Defender Office since 2004, and has presided over its growth from just herself to a staff of nine attorneys, two investigators, and six secretaries.Johnson told the Kiwanis Club of Dougherty County on January 21 that by law the office is only allowed to represent indigent defendants, those who are determined to be unable to afford private legal representation. It provides an opportunity for everyone to have a fair proceeding, she said.
“Our (U.S.) Constitution doesn’t allow us to throw people away,” Johnson observed.
Her office believes integrity in its staffers is very important. “We are entrusted with a great amount of (fiscal) resources,” Johnson said, so she has to be able to trust her employees. All clients are treated fairly, she added.
The local office has been identified by the state as a model of efficiency, she noted.
The Dougherty public defender office handles about 5,000 cases a year, Johnson estimated. One thing she has noticed, she said, is “we are seeing crimes involving younger and younger defendants,” many of them repeat offenders, a trend she attributed to a decline in societal values and respect for authority.
Common threads in youth cases are often a lack of education, as well as an unstable family life and peer pressure.
It’s not always about a lack of money, Johnson observed. She recalled one case of a well-known area minister’s son charged with armed robbery, a crime he committed not to obtain money but just to fit in.
“Something has got to change about our values,” Johnson said, citing influences such as violence in video games and movies.
Prior to heading the public defender office, Johnson’s legal career also included stints as a prosecutor and a private defense attorney.