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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Could a public defender’s office be next for Clark County?

Deputy county manager tells councilors that courts struggling under current contract system

By Shari Phiel, Columbian staff writer
Published: June 22, 2023, 6:03am

Clark County’s indigent defense system may be in line for an overhaul. The county council reviewed options for continuing to contract out indigent defense services or bringing them in house during a work session Wednesday.

On hand for the work session were Superior Court Judges Derek Vanderwood and Jennifer Snider, defense attorneys Kari Reardon and Christie Emrich, and representatives from the Washington State Office of Public Defense.

Currently, the county contracts with private attorneys in the area to provide indigent defense representation. Deputy County Manager Amber Emery said the courts are struggling under that system, adding the county has 30 pending cases of people charged with murder or attempted murder assigned to indigent defense.

Emery told the council that having enough indigent defense attorneys to represent the felony cases heard in Superior Court hasn’t improved since the council reviewed the system in 2017 and 2018.

“That problem hasn’t gone away,” she said.

Recommendations made at the time included adding two internal staff attorneys and an indigent defense manager, Emery said, but those recommendations were not implemented.

“There was a recommendation to increase compensation and we have done that with some of our contracts in recent years, but it’s still not on par with what the contracts should be,” Emery added.

Recommendations made in 2018 included increasing compensation, as well as creating a public defender’s office with six attorneys.

The current recommendation is to transition to an in-house public defender’s office with 14 or more full-time staff. Several of the councilors said they wanted a full breakdown of the current budget and any impacts from an in-house model before making a decision.

“I think whatever model we move forward with, there are going to be challenges,” Councilor Sue Marshall said. “I think cost will always hover over as a concern in how to address this.”

According to data from the Washington State Office of Public Defense, Clark County is one of the largest counties in the state without a public defender’s office. In 2005, only six counties in the state had such offices while 29 counties contracted for services. By 2022, the number of counties with a public defender’s office had risen to 14 and the number of counties using contract services dropped to 17, with most of those in the eastern half of the state. Additionally, a few counties rely on nonprofit public defense agencies or have an in-house attorney manage contracted services.

“The fact that we are sitting in a contract public defense office that one, we don’t have an attorney running the office — which we haven’t had for many, many years — and two, we’re the fifth most populous county in the state and we don’t have a public defense office, that’s two very telling points in this picture,” Emery told the council.

The lack of an internal public defender’s office affects more than having enough attorneys to represent individuals arrested and awaiting court appearances or trials, said attorney Katrin Johnson from the state public defense office.

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Johnson said legislative changes, such as the 2021 Blake ruling that found the state’s drug possession law to be unconstitutional, and how those changes affect public defenders are where the state office can help. Unlike in a public defender’s office, she said individual attorneys contracted to provide public defense services often don’t have the support or resources needed to adapt to legislative changes.

Another issue facing cities and counties is recruiting new attorneys. Geoffrey Hulsey, from the state public defense office, said, nationwide, more graduating attorneys are heading to groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union rather than big corporate law or government agencies.

“It’s certainly affecting the ability to recruit and retain attorneys, not just within public defense but also prosecution offices, as well,” Hulsey told the council.

Hulsey said there’s also been about a 30 percent year-over-year reduction in the number of attorneys opening individual practices, which Clark County relies on for its indigent defense services.

Councilor Gary Medvigy said he was in support of creating a public defender’s office. Along with budgetary concerns, Medvigy said he wants to address “access, quality, the fundamental tenets of what a public defender’s office can provide” to the public before backing any one model over another. He also wanted to look at how nonprofit public defense groups work.

“You must have some idea, in Washington state, of what works best. That’s what I’m looking to hear,” Medvigy said. “We’re going to do this, we’re finally going get over the hump and get this going.”

But, he said, he wants to start with the right model.

Hulsey said answering that question depends on the jurisdiction and its needs. He said while the nonprofit model is working in places such as Snohomish County, it may not be right for Clark County.

“I don’t think there’s a straight up, black and white answer to that,” Hulsey said.

To watch the full work session, go to https://clark.wa.gov/councilors/clark-county-council-meetings.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly attributed information and quotes from Deputy County Manager Amber Emery. The story also incorrectly stated the timeline for outreach and that information has been removed.