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Steve Smith
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Neal Pinkston

When Steve Smith talks of how he envisions the Hamilton County Public Defender's office might look in the coming months, a simple analogy is best: He wants it to look like a private law practice.

"I want a client to know who their lawyer is from the moment they're arrested until the moment that case is resolved, rather than just the office is assigned to that client," Smith said.

It's called vertical representation, and if you aren't a lawyer or courtroom regular, it works the way you probably imagine things work. In reality, the public defender's office has until now used a horizontal model.

A public defender is appointed at the Sessions Court level. That attorney sticks with the client until the case is dropped or bound over to a grand jury. If the grand jury returns an indictment, a different public defender is assigned to see the case through Criminal Court.

"If I was accused of a crime, it just wouldn't be a system I think I would want to happen," Smith said.

Vertical representation is the standard recommended by the American Bar Association, and it's being slowly adopted in large metropolitan counties around the state, Knox County Public Defender Mark Stephens said.

"When we said we were going to do it, the judges and the DA both cried and said it would bring the system down," Stephens said.

But so far, he insisted, the transition has been smooth. Stephens said it cuts down on some of the mistrust that's often automatically bred between public defenders and the people they're contracted to represent.

"Most of my clients, at least initially, are really disappointed to find out that I'm representing them," Stephens said.

By sticking with a client throughout the case, attorneys forge connections.

"Trust is something that is built over the course of the relationship," Stephens said.

District Attorney General Neal Pinkston said his office would welcome the change. Public defenders and assistant district attorneys general could maintain face-to-face contact and expertise on a case from beginning to end.

"It breeds familiarity and trust," Pinkston said.

He has slowly implemented similar changes since early October, grouping prosecutors by charge. One prosecutor handles only violent crimes, two deal with sex crimes, one in Sessions and one in Criminal Court each deal with property crimes, among other groupings. Those who deal with violent crimes will prosecute vertically, and assistant DAs who prosecute murders have been doing so vertically since last year.

Pinkston said changes on both ends of the criminal process will only be positive, but he noted the transition might seem slow.

"I think it's nothing but a good thing. It'll just take a little time to iron out if there are any issues to make it operate more smoothly," Pinkston said.

Contact staff writer Claire Wiseman at 423-757-6347 or Follow her on Twitter @clairelwiseman.