Last year, the Canyon County Public Defender’s Office handled 8,000 felony, misdemeanor and child welfare cases, the vast majority of the criminal cases filed in the county. Only about 7 percent of the total cases were handled by private attorneys.
Representing folks who cannot pay for an attorney goes far beyond simply representing a client in court, said Tera Harden, who heads the office.
“Public defense is very different from other areas of law,” Harden said. “Usually, we’re not not just dealing with a crime. There’s usually a whole host of circumstances related to how it got to them being charged with a crime. We deal with a lot of mental health issues, substance abuse issues and alcoholism.”
In child protection cases, officials often see children raised in dirty homes without heat, water and food, she said.
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Canyon County has the sixth-highest poverty level, 18 percent, in the state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That, along with a large number of people who are just above the poverty line, explains the high percentage of criminal defendants represented by a public defender, she said.
“The majority of people will qualify for a public defender,” Harden said.
Generations of television viewers who grew up on shows such as “Dragnet,” “Adam 12,” “Hill Street Blues” and “N.Y.P.D. Blue” know the Miranda warning and its guarantee of legal representation: “You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.”
That wasn’t always the case. On Friday, Harden and her staff celebrated the 53rd anniversary of the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring that defendants facing serious criminal charges are constitutionally entitled to free legal representation. Before that, only defendants accused of murder or other capital crimes were provided lawyers without cost.
For many years, Canyon County contracted for defense services, most recently with attorney Mark Mimura, who provided a staff of lawyers to handle the load.
Harden, who grew up in Moscow and later practiced in Southern California, was hired in July 2014 as Canyon County established its own public defense office. She supervises a staff of 37, including 20 other attorneys.
The office has what Harden calls a “shoestring budget” of about $3.4 million, about half of the budget for the county prosecutor’s office, which handles civil matters in addition to criminal cases.
Even with the guarantee for public defense representation, that cost is covered by Idaho’s counties. The state does not currently provide any funding, although that could change.
In January, an Ada County judge dismissed a court case seeking to improve Idaho’s public defense system. The American Civil Liberties Union had argued that the system was “broken” and that criminal defendants couldn’t get adequate representation. The ACLU is appealing the ruling.
Meanwhile, the Idaho Legislature is considering a bill that would provide counties $5.5 million for defense work. The measure also would direct the state Public Defense Commission to enact public defense standards, which could include a cap on the number of cases attorneys could be assigned at one time.
The American Bar Association recommends that public defenders handling felony cases should have a maximum caseload of 150 cases. Last year, Canyon County public defenders were each saddled with about 250 cases.
Under the proposed legislation, Canyon County would be eligible to draw 15 percent of its budget, about $510,000, from state funds. To meet the ABA’s suggested standards by hiring additional employees, the county would require 27 percent, or $918,000, Harden said.
Providing some funding is a “step in the right direction,” Harden said, “but it’s going to require significantly more funding to meet the standards.”
Canyon County already faces a lawsuit over the high caseload handled by its public defenders. Lisa Rae Fullmer, a first-year lawyer who worked for the public defender’s office for nine months before being fired last July, claims she was fired after refusing to assist another attorney while she was already overburdened by her own caseload.
Fullmer is seeking reinstatement along with lost wages, benefits and damages. The case was moved to Ada County and is scheduled to go to trial April 12.