You won’t find anybody who is against reforms to Idaho’s inadequate public defender system. Gov. Butch Otter even acknowledged it in his State of the State message in January, saying the system does not pass constitutional muster. Members of the Idaho Legislature have been working on solving a list of deficiencies for going on five years now.
Should anybody’s right to competent counsel be dependent upon whether you live in a big, small, rich, poor, fully staffed or understaffed/overworked county jurisdiction?
It is time to demand answers of our lawmakers to questions such as: “What is taking so long?” “How did we get to a place where there is, at times, an uneven distribution of justice when it comes to Idaho’s mandate to provide legal counsel to all — especially to indigent defendants facing criminal charges?”
Unlike so many other legal issues the high courts have considered in recent months and years, the right to legal counsel was decided long ago and is not a matter of debate. The constitutional guarantees in the Sixth and 14th amendments and the Idaho state code are not vague.
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Is this innocent-until-proven-guilty idea just for people who can afford to hire an attorney? No, we know better. So why don’t we do better? How, in a state full of people who regularly quote the Constitution, can we tolerate an unconstitutional system?
We hope it isn’t because of a false assumption that those people charged with crimes are probably guilty anyway, or some other rationale. It can’t be just because of money, because justice is simply not negotiable.
We are encouraged after our conversations with Sen. Todd Lakey and Rep. Christy Perry — Nampa Republican co-chairs of an interim committee addressing the matter — that we are seeing progress on improving statewide public defender standards, training and plans to capture better data support. Perhaps most importantly, there seems to be a growing awareness that a fix could cost tens of millions of dollars.
We have confidence in their ability to articulate the complexities of standardizing a system that, we agree, would work best if the 44 counties had a measure of local control. It is time for their legislative colleagues to gather the will to move forward. We get that there are challenging issues, but a more level playing field for justice is worth a more concerted effort.
Yes, these legislators on the interim committees and the public defense commissions are doing their jobs. But so is the ACLU, which filed a class action lawsuit last month in an attempt to force constitutional compliance.
“Idaho has an unconstitutional criminal justice system. The state asks all of the people it prosecutes to comply with the law: not sometime in the future, but now,” wrote Leo Morales, acting executive director of the ACLU of Idaho, in an email response to some of our questions. “Our clients are not allowed to plead in their defense that following the law just takes time (years). The state, even more so, owes it to all Idahoans to comply in the utmost to its constitutional responsibilities.”
Promises that the Legislature will “make progress” in the next session, though welcome, are not good enough. The Legislature should make this matter a priority and be prepared to solve it in 2016. As it stands, Otter, in his 2016 and 2017 State of the State messages, would have to report again and again that our system still falls short of constitutional muster. That is unacceptable to Idaho and to justice.
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