The way Clark County provides attorneys for poor people accused of crimes could be in for a big overhaul.
On Wednesday, the Clark County Council heard from a workgroup consisting of local defense attorneys and retired judges who recommended that the county increase pay for indigent defense lawyers while also creating an in-house public defender office.
John Nichols, a retired Superior Court judge who served on the workgroup, said at the meeting that the recommendations are meant to bring better stability and institutional support to the constitutionally mandated service.
Currently, the county has 36 contracts with law firms and lawyers to defend individuals charged with a felony but who are too poor to afford legal counsel. The service is coordinated by Clark County’s Indigent Defense Office.
According to the workgroup’s presentation, these contracts pay a flat $800 for felony cases (additional compensation is provided for more complex cases). The rate hasn’t increased since 2009, and the workgroup concluded that the county is having a difficult time attracting and retaining attorneys because of the low pay. Nichols called the situation “abysmal.”
“(The county is growing), and that is not a sustainable model going forward,” said Heather Carroll, a local defense attorney who served on the workgroup.
Nichols said the county experienced a crisis late last year when it didn’t have enough attorneys for indigent defendants.
Speaking after the meeting, Ann Christian, the county’s indigent defense manager who also served on the workgroup, said that there were 131 cases without a public defender. She said that the problem was overcome with contract attorneys taking on additional cases. However, Christian said that the situation was not ideal. State standards limit the caseload for public defenders. Christian said that significantly adding to contract attorneys’ caseloads could violate those standards.
The workgroup recommended the county direct $803,562 in its next two-year budget to increase compensation for contract attorneys. It also recommended creating a public defender office that would handle about half of the indigent defense caseload.
According to the workgroup’s presentation, every county in Washington with a population over 100,000 has an in-house agency that provides indigent defense — except Clark and Snohomish counties.
Barbara Johnson, another retired Superior Court judge who served on the workgroup, said the recommendations would retain experienced contract attorneys while bringing more parity between defense and prosecution.
Carroll said that a public defender’s office would provide a central point for public defense. She said the office could help the prosecutor and defense identify recurring issues in the criminal justice system. She also mentioned that a public defender office could weigh in on larger issues, such as the county’s effort to upgrade its aging jail.
“The county is losing out on an important institutional voice by not having a public defense perspective at the table for county discussions,” she said.
The workgroup was created last year after Bob Stevens, director of General Services (which includes indigent defense), brought a similar proposal to the council that he said wouldn’t have an impact on the county’s budget.
However, this proposal, unlike Stevens’, is expected to have a greater impact on the county’s budget. The county’s 2017-2018 budget for indigent defense is about $11 million, according to county Budget Director Adriana Prata.
The public defender’s office proposed by the workgroup would include nine full-time attorneys and staff that would end up costing the county another $640,912 in the county’s next two-year budget, in addition to increased compensation for contract attorneys.
County officials have complained that county expenses exceed revenue each year leading a structural budget deficit. Interim County Manager Jim Rumpeltes said that the county’s next budget will also be challenging and he would look into options to phase in the workgroup’s recommendations.
Council Chair Marc Boldt said that challenge will be ongoing as the cost of providing indigent defense increases. In Washington, counties provide indigent defense services. Boldt said that Washington State Association of Counties is preparing litigation to get more funding from the state for the service.