ACLU sues over public defenders for children

Group says state agency isn’t doing its job properly

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SEATTLE — The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington is suing the state’s Office of Public Defense in an effort to get the state to do more to make sure children charged with crimes have good legal help.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in Thurston County Superior Court, specifically challenges what the ACLU describes as the agency’s failure to protect juvenile defendants in Grays Harbor County on the Pacific coast, but the issues aren’t limited to Grays Harbor County, said Emily Chiang, the organization’s legal director.

While the ACLU has previously sued several jurisdictions to improve representation for defendants who can’t afford lawyers — including a landmark 2013 federal court decision against the cities of Burlington and Mount Vernon — this case is about getting the state to enforce public defense standards on its own, she said.

“There’s a very competent and well-run state agency here. It should be their job,” she said. “I don’t think the ACLU should be in the business of managing public defense resources.”

The lawsuit seeks to have the court declare that Grays Harbor County is violating the constitutional rights of children charged with crimes and that the Office of Public Defense has the authority to require remedial measures.

Grays Harbor County

Under state law, the Office of Public Defense is tasked with ensuring “the effective and efficient delivery of indigent defense services funded by the state,” and with distributing money to counties and cities to improve public defense services. Chiang said the state’s powers could also include requiring public defenders in certain cities or counties to attend extra training sessions; reviewing how contracts for public defenders are written and executed; or even taking over the administration of public defense in jurisdictions that don’t improve.

Joanne Moore, the agency’s director, declined to comment on the lawsuit except to say, “Our role is rather limited under Washington law.”

The lawsuit is the second recent case in which the ACLU has objected to the treatment of juvenile defendants in Grays Harbor County. Last month, it sued the county on the grounds that it violated the constitutional rights of children by routinely locking them in solitary confinement. A teen boy listed as a plaintiff in that case was put in solitary confinement 40 times between 2013 and 2016, including one eight-day stretch in a room splattered with food and blood, and with a feces-covered grate over a hole in the floor for a toilet, the ACLU said.

The complaint against the state public defense office said some young defendants in Grays Harbor County have been pressed to plead guilty even when they have legitimate defenses, and that in other cases their lawyer failed to object when they received excessive stints in custody or unacceptably high bail amounts.

Services defended

Superior Court Judge David Edwards, who has overseen juvenile court cases in the county for the past eight years, said Monday he had not reviewed the lawsuit. But he disputed any suggestion that the lawyering on behalf of the children wasn’t up to par.

“I see every day I’m down there the quality of legal representation provided to juveniles,” he said. “I’ve never been concerned the representation these kids get was not — at least — adequate.”

The lawyer currently contracted to provide juvenile defense in Grays Harbor County did not respond to a message seeking comment, and her predecessor, Kyle Imler, was elected a county District Court judge last fall. Imler declined to comment Monday.

Counties around the state have struggled to pay for public defenders. In Olympia this year, the Washington State Association of Counties sought to get the state to pony up more money for indigent defense, saying Washington covers just 4 percent of public defense trial court costs. Thirty-one states cover at least half, the association said.

A bill supported by the association would have required the state to “fully fund” public defense costs. It never got a hearing.