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Posts tagged: public defender

Lawmakers mull new Public Defense Commission

A legislative interim committee has agreed on the concept of state Public Defense Commission to help oversee improvements in the state’s spotty and problem-plagued system of criminal defense for indigent defendants. But the senators and representatives also agreed that the new commission should make recommendations to the Legislature on new requirements for qualifications, experience, and performance standards for public defenders, rather than promulgate rules on those items itself. “I don’t know that we can do it all at once,” said Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, co-chair of the interim committee. “It may be a two- or three-year process.”

The panel also is discussing how best to get full-time public defenders in Idaho’s counties, rather than lawyers who also have other cases – which may be higher-paying and draw more of their attention. The problem comes for Idaho’s remote and sparsely populated counties, where, even if they shared a full-time public defender with other counties, travel time could stretch into many hours. Lawmakers on the panel agreed to get more input from counties before their next meeting in January.

The committee’s work opened in August with a stern warning from Idaho Supreme Court Justice Roger Burdick that the state’s criminal defense system for indigent defendants is “broken,” plagued by soaring caseloads, short funding, and lack of qualified, experienced and suitably trained attorneys. Idaho law and the state Constitution require public defenders; Burdick warned that the state is falling short of its own constitutional standard.

Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, the interim committee’s Senate co-chairman, said, “We’ve made significant progress.” He said the panel will finalize its commission legislation at its Jan. 8 meeting, and decide whether to propose it during this year’s legislative session. The panel also voted today to recommend the appointment of an additional legislative study group to examine whether cities should help fund the public defender system, in addition to counties and the state. Mortimer said funding issues will be the main focus of the Jan. 8 meeting, including “long-range planning for stable and ongoing funding.” Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Idaho’s flawed public defender system could put state at risk for lawsuits

Idaho is at risk of lawsuits over its flawed public defender system, according to a 2010 report, but after several years of study, the state still hasn't agreed on how to fix the system, the AP reports. Now, an interim committee of lawmakers is being tasked with finding a solution. At the heart of the dispute is whether counties should be free to give public defender contracts to private attorneys, with standards, or whether counties should be required to hire a full-time public defender, a big and costly change for the state, but one that would address a fundamental difficulty in the system when lawyers juggle low-paid public defense contracts with other, higher-paying cases.

“Both of those proposals were brought up before the commission,” said State Appellate Public Defender Sara Thomas, who is a commission member. “Ultimately the decision was made that they would go to the governor on equal footing, and now the interim committee will get a chance to review them.” Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Kootenai County rescinds firing of public defender

Kootenai County public defender John Adams won’t be fired after all, county commissioners decided this week, saying two of the three commissioners had been unaware of Adams’ recent cancer diagnosis during their previous vote. The decision to reinstate Adams was made by the board “as a whole,” the county announced; you can read more here at spokesman.com.

Letter: ‘It is the people of Kootenai County that will lose’

The Idaho Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has sent a three-page “open letter” to Kootenai County commissioners, decrying the firing of longtime Kootenai County Public Defender John Adams. “Individuals familiar with both Mr. Adams and his office have noted that the decision to end his tenure as the Kootenai County Public Defender is ‘disastrous,’ ‘shameful,’ and ‘catastrophic,’” the letter says. “We too must add our voices to those who recognize that it is the people of Kootenai County that will lose if your decision stands.”

The association, which has more than 300 members statewide, applauded Kootenai County for launching a “comprehensive evaluation of the public defender program,” but said dismissing Adams “appears to presuppose the outcome of any comprehensive evaluation would be a recommendation for new management of the office, or to disband the office and move to an assigned counsel system.” To the contrary, the group said, a report issued three years ago by the National Legal Aid and Defender’s Association ranked the Kootenai public defender’s office, under Adams’ leadership, the best in the state. “Notably, one of the problems that was actually identified with the office was the Commission’s political influence over the defense function,” the group wrote. “Choosing this time to terminate an experienced, well respected, effective and seasoned public defender seems imprudent at best.” You can read the full letter here.

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About this blog

Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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