There is this little matter in the Constitution about due process — for everyone, in every county, in every state.
Passages in the 6th and 14th Amendments and state laws detail our rights to due process, speedy trials and being represented by counsel — at public expense if a defendant cannot afford it.
For an embarrassing chunk of this century, the State of Idaho has been confronted with the fact that a level playing field for indigent criminals does not exist in all 44 counties.
On Jan. 12, 2015, Gov. Butch Otter made reference to this in his State of the State message on the day the Legislature convened:
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“... I hope you will consider it equally important to continue our work toward addressing the very real challenge we face in our public defense system. The courts have made it clear that our current method of providing legal counsel for indigent criminal defendants does not pass constitutional muster.”
Midway through 2015 the ACLU of Idaho filed suit citing the state’s failure to fix the public defense system, which, few disagree, is underfunded and understaffed in some areas. The ACLU spelled this out by recalling cases where criminal defendants did not have representation at their initial court appearances, or were left in jail or in legal limbo because their public defenders were overwhelmed with too many cases.
An interim committee staffed with very capable people in the Legislature and the members of the Idaho State Public Defense Commission have been investigating the problem and gathering data over the past few years. Though the Legislature has tweaked some procedures and appropriated money for public defender training, we believe the lack of a permanent, comprehensive solution still leaves indigent defendants at risk.
Some members of our Editorial Board were present Thursday for a 2016 Legislature preview sponsored by the Associated Press where Otter and legislative leaders addressed a number of issues it might take up in this session. Among them are the shortcomings in the public defender system.
Our concerns are, as always, that there is only so much money to go around, and that this session could be truncated because it is an election year. There will be pressures to set a budget and get back home to manage campaigns in advance of the May primary elections.
We would love to be wrong and learn Monday that Otter in his 2016 State of the State speech is making our unconstitutional public defense system a priority and that legislators will not go home until they have figured out a more equitable way to provide the justice all Idahoans deserve — not just those who can afford attorneys.
We agree with members of the interim committee that there is a way to establish and improve public defender standards, keep some local control and even find the estimated “tens of millions” of dollars it might cost to live up to our due process responsibilities.
This system is broken and needs fixing. It likely is not fixable in one year. But it would be a travesty if the topic was ignored — and by ignored, we mean if lawmakers don’t make a down payment this session on the debt of injustice that prevails.
Should they overlook this Constitutional responsibility yet again, we will remind voters in the weeks and months ahead.
Statesman editorials are the unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman’s editorial board. To comment on an editorial or suggest a topic, email editorial@idahostatesman .com.