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Eye On Boise

Burdick to lawmakers: Idaho’s public defender system is ‘broken’

Idaho’s criminal defense system for indigent defendants is “broken,” Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Burdick told lawmakers this morning. Though Idaho’s law and state constitution require such defense, soaring caseloads, short funding, and lack of qualified, experienced and suitably trained attorneys have eroded the fairness of the system, he said.

Burdick said the judicial system is a “three-legged stool,” with the three legs the prosecutor, the criminal defense attorney, and the impartial third party – the judge – who applies law to a set of contested facts. “All three-legged stools are only as stable and useful for their intended purpose as the three legs,” he said. “In Idaho’s system of justice today, defense for the indigent is the weakest leg in the system. … Frankly, our system for the defense of indigents, as required by Idaho’s constitution and laws, is broken.”

Idaho must look at ways to “aggressively improve the system that exists today,” Burdick said, from addressing caseloads to establishing a “well-funded, systematic state-approved training program.” Plus, he said, “Part of the funding issue needs to include an analysis of lowest bidder or fixed-fee contracts. The conflict of economic interest is inherent in this approach and must be eradicated.”

The interim committee met all day today at the state Capitol. Burdick’s remarks this morning were followed by presentations from national, state and county perspectives; a public defender study conducted in Canyon County; and additional information from the Idaho Criminal Justice Commission, the 6th Amendment Center and more.

Burdick told lawmakers that Idaho law and the constitution already set the standard, and the state needs to meet the standard: To “make sure that every person accused of crime not only is given a fair and impartial trial but every reasonable opportunity to prepare his defense and vindicate his innocence upon trial.” Burdick said, “It has been the duty of this state before statehood and continues today. It is our duty to protect these fundamental ideals for the future.” You can read his full remarks here.

All 10 members of the interim committee, which includes five senators and five state representatives, attended today’s meeting; a second meeting will be scheduled in September.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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