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County commissioners authorize hiring two additional public defenders days after office suspends new cases

UPDATED: Tue., July 3, 2018, 7:15 p.m.

FILE – This aerial view of the Spokane County Courthouse on Oct. 26, 2013. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE – This aerial view of the Spokane County Courthouse on Oct. 26, 2013. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane county commissioners have approved the hiring of two additional public defenders – a move that will help relieve an office that was forced to leave defendants sitting in jail for days without representation.

Thomas Krzyminski, director of the Public Defender’s Office, sent an email to staff Monday afternoon announcing the decision. He told attorneys two lawyers who defend suspects accused of misdemeanors will shift to felony cases, and their positions will be back-filled with new hires.

The email indicates one new hire will start Monday. Their contract will only extend to the end of 2018.

“This should allow us to meet caseload standards,” Krzyminski said Tuesday morning in a phone interview. “And then give us an opportunity to see the findings for the rest of the year to determine whether or not this is going to carry over to next year.”

On June 25, Krzyminski delayed assigning public defenders to defendants recently accused of felonies and unable to afford their own attorneys for about a week, citing concerns that his staff was in danger of exceeding caseload limits set by the state. It was the first time the office was in danger of hitting those limits since they were implemented in 2012.

As a result, anyone booked into jail who couldn’t afford their own attorney didn’t have access to a public defender until Monday morning. Typically, defendants gain access to a court-appointed lawyer shortly after being arrested and charged with a felony.

Some in the Spokane law community, such as private defense lawyer Richard Wall, criticized the move, saying it left defendants in “legal limbo” for several days while they waited for the court to catch up.

“It delays their ability to get relief from the court,” he said last week. “Or it delays their trial. Or it delays their ability to get their bond reduced and get out of jail.”

Krzyminski said he had no choice but to delay incoming assignments, saying if his attorneys exceeded the caseload limit of 150 cases per attorney per year, they risked being disbarred.

Christie Hedman, executive director of the Washington Defender Association, said last week those limits were set by the Washington Supreme Court specifically to protect defendants from being represented by a lawyer who is overworked.

Spokane County CEO Gerry Gemmill said Tuesday morning the additional hires were only budgeted for the rest of 2018, giving the county a chance to assess if the additional employees are necessary.

“Hopefully, it will help with the gap that we have,” he said. “Give us a chance to see if this is just a blip, or if there’s a trend going on.”

Since 2007, according to court data, felony case filings have increased by about 9 percent.

The Counsel for Defense, which employs six attorneys and handles cases from the defender’s office when there’s a conflict of interest, also suspended incoming felony cases on June 25 until Monday. Scott Mason, director of the office, cited similar concerns as Krzyminski, saying his attorneys were in danger of reaching caseload limits.

Mason said he expected there would be similar meetings in the near future with county commissioners to discuss potential hiring needs.

“If they get more, I expect our numbers will go up,” he said. “We’ll probably have to ask for more, too. It’s just hard to predict.”


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