Kitsap County’s public defenders had already been bracing for change. Turns out there was more in store than they thought.
Those lawyers, who take on cases for those who can’t afford a lawyer, have seen a sizable drop in their felony case loads in the past year. Lawyers at some firms have even been laid off.
They had already been waiting for the results of the so-called “Jack Hill” report, which calls for the county to pay for a lawyer to provide oversight and quality control for the system.
Here’s another thing to factor in: In 2002, 15 firms received indigent defense cases from the county clerk’s office. Now, 18 have contracts to receive them.
Thus, more lawyers, less cases.
Add to that the looming news of how the county will spend about half-million dollars from the state to “enhance” public defense. There’s an impending possibility of the county bringing public defense in-house, a move that could diminish caseloads further. Kitsap County Clerk David Peterson hired a consultant — Jack Hill, who once ran the Pierce County Office of Public Defense — about $20,000 to find the best way to do that.
Hill’s answer was hiring a lawyer to work in the clerk’s office, one Peterson wants to task with “oversight” and “quality control,” of public defense in Kitsap.
Another task, though, would be to plan for the future of the county’s indigent defense: either keep the status quo, or moved to a more “mixed system” of defense attorneys, some who’d work for private firms, and some who’d work for the county.
They still need final approval from the county commissioners to hire the attorney, Peterson said.
Here’s the good news for public defenders: regardless of what happens, attorneys who handle public defense on a contract basis “aren’t going to go away,” Peterson told me.