Before Spokane County commissioners embrace a solution for the county’s troubled Public Defender’s Office, they’ll need to figure out what problem it is they’re trying to solve.
Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French are interested in reconstituting the Public Defender’s Office as a private, nonprofit organization, The Spokesman-Review’s Thomas Clouse reported. No decisions have been made, but similar arrangements in Snohomish and Chelan counties have resulted in smooth operations and lower costs.
Spinning public defenders off into an independent nonprofit also creates opportunities for grants and fundraising not readily available to a government agency.
The change certainly deserves examination. But any review must encompass a larger question: Do problems in the office stem from its structure, or are there other factors Spokane County must address to ensure that indigent defendants are given the legal counsel to which they are entitled?
On the surface, opportunities for financial savings appear limited. According to the Washington State Office of Public Defense, Spokane County spent $18.78 per capita on public defense in 2016. Three of the state’s four counties that provide public defense through nonprofit organizations spent more – in Chelan County’s case, $28.90 per capita.
Each resident of Seattle’s King County was taxed a whopping $33.97 to provide public defender services in 2016. King County had a private, nonprofit public defender organization until 2013, when voters approved a charter amendment to create an organizational structure like the one in Spokane County, where public defenders work for the county.
As they study the potential benefits of privatizing public defender services, Spokane County commissioners will want to understand why the state’s largest county just moved in the opposite direction.
It’s likely that costs stem from factors other than where public defense services fit on a county’s organizational chart. In Spokane County’s case, one such factor stands out in glaring relief: the number of criminal cases.
More felonies are prosecuted in Spokane County than in any other large county in Washington, The Spokesman Review’s Jonathan Glover reported earlier this year. It’s not even close: As of the end of last week, Spokane County prosecutors had brought 3,082 felony cases. In King County, with a population four times as large, felony filings totaled 2,549.
The disparity is due in large part to different prosecutorial approaches to drug-related crimes. Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell’s view is that it’s his job to enforce drug laws passed by the Washington Legislature. Prosecutors in other counties take a more flexible approach, diverting lesser drug offenses away from the criminal justice system. The prosecutor’s attitude sits well with Spokane County voters, who elected Haskell to a second term last year without opposition.
The structure of the public defender’s office will not change the fact that every criminal prosecuted in Spokane County deserves representation in court.
It’s also far from certain whether a reorganization would improve the efficiency of the 60 lawyers and 30 support staff members in the Spokane County Public Defender’s Office. The volume of felony filings produces a crushing workload, despite a Washington Supreme Court ruling limiting the yearly number of cases each public defender can be assigned. One consequence of heavy caseloads is high turnover: Since Tom Krzyminski became director of the office in 2013, more than two-thirds of the county’s public defense lawyers have retired, quit or been fired.
Unhappiness with Krzyminski’s leadership may be compounding the pressures caused by turnover and caseloads. Clouse’s reporting told of employees who believe the director’s style is arbitrary, biased and retributive. One concrete measure of these feelings is that in three cases, Spokane County has had to pay to settle legal claims brought by employees in the Public Defender’s Office.
Whatever the degree of dissatisfaction in the office, and wherever its causes may lie, the situation could be aggravated by an organizational upheaval. At the outset, public defenders and staff members would worry about a loss of job security and benefits. A private, nonprofit organization could ultimately address those fears.
Spokane County needs a strong, stable Public Defender’s Office to protect the integrity of the criminal justice system. It’s worth exploring what kind of organizational structure could best deliver it.
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