Public Defense: State Funding Fight to Keep Itself Honest

Grant County’s public defense debacle seemed to serve as a lesson to the state legislature: while indigent defense funding might not always top the list of priorities for our elected representatives and senators, lack of funding for it constitutes a violation of our constitutional rights.

In essence, the government charges you with a crime, but the very same government, for those who can’t afford it, also pays for you to fight your charges and thus attempt to keep itself honest.

When a person is arrested, it comes with this guarantee, via his or her Miranda warnings:

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to have an attorney present during questioning. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.”

While indigent defendants in Grant County were getting those warnings, the counsel appointed to them — with little or no oversight from the county — was at times not keenly concerned with matters of his client, according to a story in the Seattle Times in 2004.

The county allowed one attorney there to rack up more than 400 felony cases. The state bar says attorneys should only handled up to 150 a year, each. And that attorney plead guilty on behalf of his client in almost 9 cases out of 10.

Thus, in 2005, the legislature recognized this problem, and sought to give Washington’s 39 counties a funding stream to shore up its indigent defense programs. Kitsap’s — which is the only program managed by the county clerk in the state — landed funds that will likely close in on half-million dollars next year.

So the clerk, Dave Peterson, went out and bought a $20,000 report to study what to do with the money.

Jack Hill, a retired attorney who ran Pierce County’s Office of Assigned Counsel for more than two decades, was hired to do an assessment (read it here). He said that Kitsap’s system of contracting defense counsel on a private basis wasn’t broken — but it could break. In part:

“There is no County oversight or express responsibility to monitor the system for reasonable compliance with Washington State Bar Association Public Defense Standards essential to assure Kitsap County is meeting minimal quality of services—e.g., caseloads, training, qualification of attorneys appropriate to case assignment, supervision, etc.”

I have to say I find it interesting that the state’s attorneys, paid by salary, are by nature a non-profit. Indigent — and all defense around here — goes to for-profit private attorneys. I say this merely as an observation.

Where will the state money go? We’ll have to wait and see what Peterson and the county commissioners decide. But Hill’s report will be a big piece of evidence in the trial that is the future of public defense in Kitsap.

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