A Spokane legislator wants the state to work harder collecting money from people who are represented in court by public defenders.
The bill initiated by Sen. Bob McCaslin, R-Spokane, would require state courts to look at the financial ability of people who use public defenders at the time of sentencing.
The state now asks courts to determine ability to pay when prosecution starts.
McCaslin said a defendant’s financial situation often changes for the better by the time his or her case has concluded.
“If circumstances change, there’s no reason a defendant should not be required to pay back those costs,” he said.
McCaslin has no idea how much money his bill might generate. SB5291 first must go through hearings in the Law and Justice Committee.
The Spokane County Public Defender Office spends about $3 million a year on more than 300 cases involving indigent defendants. Most end up signing an agreement, before they are assigned a lawyer, that sets repayment schedules.
Repayment is arranged through the county Corrections Department, which keeps track of pay schedules.
Corrections Department Manager Art DeFelice said his office collects 30 percent to 50 percent of money owed the county for public defender costs.
The bill would eliminate that up-front repayment plan, substituting the court-ordered costs set at time of sentence.
It also would let the courts make repayment amounts a civil judgment against the person convicted. That means a person ordered to pay back money later could be sued if the state finds they’ve acquired money since the trial and sentencing, McCaslin said.
Another feature of SB5291 leaves a judge the option of assigning a defendant community service in place of repayment. While defendants frequently are assigned community service, such as working in a homeless shelter or providing free labor, the courts never have tried to set a monetary value on that part of a sentence.
Spokane County Public Defender Don Westerman said he’s not sure if the bill will make much difference in netting the state more money.
He noted the state previously decided to impose juvenile court costs on parents of teenagers running afoul of the law. The result, so far, is a program that has cost the state more to run than it generates in collections, he said.