Friday, March 26, 2010

Study blasts public defender system in Idaho

National group claims system not constitutionally adequate

Express Staff Writer

Brent Reinke

A study released earlier this year by a national legal-aid organization blasts Idaho's public defender system as failing to provide adequate legal representation.

The study, released in January by the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, states that Idaho has "sewn a patchwork quilt" of underfunded and overworked public defender systems that are not constitutionally adequate.

Blaine County's public defender system was one of seven in Idaho studied by the association.

"None of the studied counties have any workload controls in place, and the workloads in most counties greatly exceed those allowed under national standards," states the study, titled "The Guarantee of Counsel: Advocacy & Due Process in Idaho's Trial Courts."

"People of insufficient means are routinely processed through Idaho's magistrate courts without ever having spoken to an attorney," the study states. "Local jurisdictions get around their constitutional obligation to provide lawyers in misdemeanor cases in a myriad of ways, including accepting uninformed waivers of counsel, pressuring defendants to work out a deal with the prosecutor prior to being given publicly financed defense counsel and threatening unfair cost recovery measures."

The study alleges that the state of Idaho is failing in a constitutional duty "it owes to the people."

"The state has an obligation to ensure that the counties are capable of meeting the obligations and that counties actually do so," the study states.

The study was funded by the Idaho Juvenile Justice Commission and the Open Society Institute, an international government watchdog organization headquartered in New York City.

Commission studies problem

The Idaho Criminal Justice Commission has formed a subcommittee to review the study's findings and develop recommendations for improvements.

"The findings are what they are," said commission Chair Brent Reinke, who is also director of the Idaho Department of Correction. "There's definitely a need to look at our entire system so that there is justice for all."

The Idaho Criminal Justice Commission is a 17-member advisory board composed of judges, attorneys, prosecutors, legislators and state and county officials. Reinke said the commission formed a subcommittee to study the situation even before the study was released.

The subcommittee is developing a model public defender system for use by counties, public defender conduct standards, guidelines for qualifications for appointment of public defenders to people who can't afford attorneys, and training programs for judges and lawyers.

Reinke said funding is the biggest hurdle to implementing changes in the system and any improvements are not likely to be in place for several years.


Counties studied

In addition to Blaine County, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association studied public defender systems in Ada, Bonneville, Canyon, Kootenai, Nez Perce and Power counties.

Ada, Bonneville and Kootenai counties have county-appointed public defender offices, while Canyon, Nez Perce and Power counties contract for public defender services. Blaine County is unique in that it contracts services to five different attorneys or firms.

In Bonneville County, the study found that the public defender's office has five attorneys "attempting to cover the number of cases that 11 attorneys would be expected to handle according to national norms." The study further states that there is a "serious lack of independence, caseload controls and training" and that attempts by the county to "keep costs to an absolute minimum has effectively chilled the right to counsel in Bonneville County."

The study is also critical of Ada County, stating that the public defender's office handles a high number of homicides and is not able to ensure high-quality legal representation to defendants charged with lesser offenses.

In Kootenai County, the study found that public defenders have caseloads ranging from 152 percent to 213 percent of national standards.

The study concluded that public defenders in Canyon County carry caseloads from 148 percent to 238 percent of the national standards.

In Power County, the study found that there are no caseload restrictions to guarantee that public defenders "fully investigate" each case and that clients receive a "uniformly high level of advocacy."

The study alleges that the flat-fee funding system in Nez Perce County creates a "conflict of interest between a lawyer's ethical duty to competently defend each and every client" and the public defender's "financial self-interest to invest the least amount of time possible in each case."

Blaine was the only county not criticized in the study for having excessive public defender workloads. However, the study alleges that "a low level of compensation for public defenders creates a disincentive for contract attorneys to zealously advocate for the public clients to the same degree to which they advocate on behalf of their retained clients."

The study found that in Blaine County "there are few trials, except in the most serious cases, and almost everything is pled out."

Public defenders in Blaine County are paid $22,000 per month. Public defender services are rotated monthly between the Roark Law Firm and attorneys Douglas Werth, Christopher Simms, Dan Dolan and Cheri Hicks.

Terry Smith:

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