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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho public defenders get just 4 hours a case

By Kimberlee Kruesi Associated Press

BOISE – The state’s public defenders spend a fraction of the time they need to provide proper representation to poor people caught in the criminal justice system, according to a draft study by the Idaho Public Defense Commission.

The Associated Press obtained an early version of the study through a public records request. The study has not been finalized or publicly released, though Commission Executive Director Kimberly Simmons said Tuesday the numbers won’t change when the final version is released at the end of the month.

The study found that public defenders on average spend about four hours on each felony case even though they reported needing roughly 38 hours to provide effective counsel. A separate group of private attorneys in the survey told researchers nearly 68 hours should be spent on felony cases.

The draft report cautioned that every case an attorney handles is different in nature. “Therefore, one cannot expect all cases of the same type to take the same amount of time,” it said.

While lawmakers and criminal justice officials have long agreed that Idaho public defenders face high caseloads, the commission’s study is the first comprehensive look at how little time public defenders have to provide effective counsel.

“If this is an accurate representation of the actual state of affairs, then these results are extremely problematic,” said Shaakirrah Sanders, an associate law professor at the University of Idaho College of Law. “There needs to be some sort of assistance from the state, rather than just finding people to sign a public defense contract and not providing the adequate funding or resources.”

Sanders added that judges in Idaho have recently been given recommendations on how long certain cases should take to move through the court system.

“If we can give judges recommendations on how long each case should take, I don’t see why we can’t give similar recommendations to our public defenders,” she said.

The results come at a time when Idaho is facing a class-action lawsuit over allegations the state’s public defense system is faulty and violates the 6th Amendment rights of its citizens.

On misdemeanor cases, public defenders reported their workload on average only allows them to spend little more than two hours, but said they should be spending about 18 hours. The separate panel of private attorneys estimated misdemeanor cases should take 22 hours each.

Similar results were reported for appeals, family and juvenile cases.

Researchers tracked more than 10,000 cases involving 101 public defenders from 27 counties over a 12-week period.

The study was conducted by the state’s Public Defense Commission with the help of Boise State University at the request of the Idaho Legislature.

Vanessa Fry, with BSU’s Idaho Policy Institute, warned against reaching conclusions from the draft. “Drafts often include mistakes, placeholder data, and language that must be corrected or replaced before a report is finalized,” she said in a statement provided by the commission.

The results of the study will be used by the commission to determine maximum caseload standards for Idaho’s public defenders. Ultimately, the state could be forced to spend more money to ease workloads.

Idaho delegates the responsibility to pay for and provide public defenders to county governments. That has resulted in a patchwork system of public defenders, with high caseloads, little funding and no set standards or policies across the state.

The American Civil Liberties Union-Idaho, which is representing the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, recently received a copy of the workload study because of the AP’s public records request. Previously, the commission was going to wait until the final version was finished before providing the ACLU with the results.

The ACLU has brought similar cases over public defense systems in parts of Michigan, Washington state and other regions. However, attorneys in Idaho say this is the first such case against an entire state.

“Every day, people unable to afford an attorney rely on their Sixth Amendment right to legal representation, and Idaho’s current system fails to protect their right in any capacity,” said Kathy Griesmyer with the ACLU Idaho. “The workloads faced by Idaho public defenders in our courtrooms are astronomical and they simply can’t keep up with the charges prosecutors continue to bring at the increased rate we’ve seen the last few years. We hope the Idaho Legislature will seriously review the finalized workload study soon to be published by the (commission).”