Idaho lawmakers look at state's public defender system

An interim legislative committee is examining the public defender system in Idaho and what the state should do to ease the burden on its 44 counties.

MOSCOW-PULLMAN DAILY NEWSSeptember 4, 2013 

Each Idaho county is left to its own devices as to how to provide accused criminals with legal representation, but critics of the current system say the state should be more involved in the process.

“We believe that what we have in the state right now is inadequate to meet constitutional standards when it comes to public defense,” says Leo Morales, communications and advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho. “There are more than several counties perhaps that are worse than others.”

The ACLU maintains counties can’t afford the burden by themselves of absorbing the cost of providing competent public defenders, Morales says. This can cause defendants to receive harsher sentences or innocent people to be wrongly convicted, he says.

“Counties, by themselves, I think it’s challenging as other issues arise or the tax base is eroded,” Morales says. “The counties, by themselves, cannot handle these issues.”

The Idaho Criminal Justice Commission formed a public defense subcommittee in 2009, which made several recommendations for standardizing rules for qualifying for public defense. Those rules were adopted in May.

The subcommittee also recommended forming the interim committee to look at oversight of the public defense system, standards and possible areas for reform, adding in its report its concerns that maintaining the status quo in Idaho leaves the state open to legal dispute.

Latah County Prosecutor Bill Thompson says there is a concern in Boise that the ACLU could file suit against the state if substantial improvements to the public defender system are not made. The ACLU says Idaho’s system violates defendants’ Sixth Amendment rights to a speedy trial with the assistance of counsel.

The National Legal Aid and Defender Association has released its own report on the state of Idaho’s public defender system. The report focuses on seven Idaho counties: Ada, Blaine, Bonneville, Canyon, Kootenai, Power and Nez Perce.

“They wrote a pretty scathing report, but that report needs to be taken with a grain of salt” because of a biased agenda, Thompson says. “That’s why we decided to take an independent investigation of affairs in Idaho.”

Thompson supports Latah County’s decision to hire a third public defender in response to rising caseloads, though he says “throwing money” at Idaho’s public-defender problem won’t help much by itself. “The current system is not working consistently,” he says.

He adds: “The truth is, the last thing a prosecutor wants is an incompetent, unfunded or inexperienced public defender.”

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bmacz@dnews.com, (208) 883-4631, @BrandonMacz

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