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Eye On Boise

Lawmakers grapple with public defense reforms

Members of a joint legislative committee charged with crafting reforms for Idaho’s public defense system reviewed draft legislation today, and though members of the panel objected to nearly every line and section in the bill, they’re calling it progress.

“Thank you - I thought that was tremendous work,” committee Co-Chair Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, told the lawmakers at the end of today’s meeting. “It’s a really hard job to do, I know. … I appreciate everybody’s patience.” AP reporter Kimberlee Kruesi has a full report here.

Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, said the draft the lawmakers examined today could be onerous for small counties, and a regional approach might work better. “I think if we don’t take the teeth out of this somewhat  it’s not going to pass the Legislature, in my opinion,” he said. “To me what we’re doing is we’re eating up any financial benefit that can be gained by the counties by demanding all this reporting and accountability, suggesting that there’s none now. I just think we’re off on the wrong track. … Maybe the regional model is the way to go, without it being so onerous.”

Perry said, “It seems like people are interested in at least exploring a second option. … I think we’re going to go back and sit down, we will re-do the one draft we have today ... (and) we’ll take look at the regional system and some other things.”

Idaho Reports co-host Melissa Davlin reports that Guthrie is the only member of the panel from outside the state’s main population centers, which have robust public defense systems.

Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, said, “When I first started on this committee, it seemed to me the problem was there were a lot of counties that were just doing the lowest-dollar contracts that they could, because there were no standards for the contracts, and that was causing problems. ... So we are now setting standards for the contracts for the counties, and at least trying to provide the adequate funding for those. It seems like those are the two things that are critical in the process.” After today’s extensive, line-by-line discussion of the draft bill, McKenzie said, “It seems almost like we’re over-lawyering things, in a sense, if they are trying to do what is right, if we give ‘em the money, the resource and the guidance on what to do, they’re working together with us on these issues. ... I think probably less is good as long as we do the critical part.”

Idaho already faces a lawsuit charging that its public defense system doesn’t meet constitutional standards. Davlin has a full report here; Idaho Reports will examine the issue on Friday. Davlin reports that today’s draft proposal would establish requirements for indigent defense attorneys, mandatory continuing legal education, workload controls, and funding mechanisms that split the cost between the state and counties. It would also allow for oversight from the statewide Public Defense Commission and review by county commissioners.

The panel set its next meeting for Dec. 14.

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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