The American Civil Liberties Union recently brought suit against the state of Washington for alleged constitutional violations occurring in Grays Harbor County’s juvenile justice system (“ACLU: Washington not ensuring kids get adequate legal help,” April 4, The Spokesman-Review).
While the lawsuit uses Grays Harbor County as an example of the state’s failings, Grays Harbor County is not the defendant; the state’s Office of Public Defense is. This is an important distinction.
When the U.S. Supreme Court issued its famous decision in Gideon vs. Wainwright in 1963, it held that states must provide a defense attorney for people who are charged with a crime and can’t afford one for themselves.
In the state of Washington, 96 percent of trial court costs related to indigent defense have been passed from the state to the counties. Since counties are the state’s primary criminal justice agency, providing the prosecutors, judges, courtrooms, interpreters, coroners, sheriffs, and jails, it makes sense for counties to provide the defense attorneys.
However, the state has largely walked away from any significant financial obligation. This isn’t fair.
Thirty-one other states, such as Oregon and California, provide half the cost of trial court indigent defense. Twenty-three states pay the entire cost. Washington is at the bottom of the list for state funding.
Why has the state stuck counties with $136 million a year in costs?
In 2016, Grays Harbor County’s indigent defense costs topped $1 million for our small, rural county, and we are track for those expenses to reach $1.5 million in 2017.
It is no wonder the ACLU takes issue with the indigent juvenile justice system. I take issue with it as well, and agree that it is time for the state of Washington to step up to the responsibility the U.S. Supreme Court gave it and fund counties for this service.
Without additional state funding, disputes over our justice system will likely become more common.
Vickie L. Raines is a commissioner for Grays Harbor County.
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