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Idaho County seeks grant money as new public defense standards go into effect


Kathy Ackerman

— The latest changes that have followed an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit are tightening regulation of the defense attorneys taxpayers provide for those who can’t afford private representation. Starting this month, new state standards require local courts to provide public defenders from the first day in court – whereas the poor and accused had often faced their initial appearances without an attorney there to argue for their bail.

“They’d also have the opportunity to resolve cases,” said Kimberly Simmons, executive director of the Idaho State Public Defense Commission, a state agency formed two years ago, even as the ACLU lawsuit began moving through Idaho courts.

Also new this year are requirements as to workload and continuing education training for public defenders.

The changes come amid a steep climb in how much local government costs. New reporting requirements effective May 1 have local officials – as well as those from Lewis and Clearwater counties, who were present at a meeting with officials from the state and other counties at the courthouse April 27 in Grangeville – concerned whether they’ll be able to find lawyers at all.

“When the judge comes in and sees the people who were arrested overnight, if that happens on the day of the week that the public defender is in town, that’s great,” said Idaho County Clerk Kathy Ackerman, who was at the meeting last Thursday. “What do you do about the times when the public defender isn’t in town? We don’t have a resident one.”

In recent years, county taxpayers have paid $85 an hour for court-appointed conflict attorneys, using money separate from the main public defender contract.

To help cover expenses that may rise during the transition to the new standards, the legislature has provided grant money. For most counties, it’s $25,000, and for big counties, it’s up to 15 percent of their public defense expense – or about $400,000 in Ada County. Across the state 43 of 44 counties in Idaho – Benewah being the only exception last year – have tapped this grant money.

The new standards may not go away even if the state eventually drops the grant funding – but even with it, $25,000 covers only a fraction of the rise in Idaho County’s public defender budget line.

Idaho County’s current grant application, dated April 27, describes last year’s grant as helping expand base pay on the primary indigent defense contract from $90,000 to $125,000 last fall. The current grant application also notes the primary indigent defender – the lawyer the county has under contract – handled roughly 58 percent of the total number of cases. Another 146 indigent defense cases were assigned to the court-appointed public conflict attorneys.

Over time, the county has seen the total cost of public defender services rise from $185,673 in fiscal 2013 to $240,033 in fiscal 2016. The total indigent defense expense for the current fiscal year is anticipated to rise to $368,000. During the same timeframe, the primary defense contract – which funds support staff, rent and other expenses beyond base pay – has grown from $92,400 to an anticipated $173,000. The conflict attorney costs have also risen sharply, from $93,274 in fiscal 2013 to an anticipated $155,000 for the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

Idaho County’s grant applications the last two years note public representation was made in 268 indigent cases during fiscal 2015 and in 355 indigent cases during fiscal 2016, mostly because of a sharp rise in drug crime, which the Free Press first reported in January 2016.

The application also notes Joanna McFarland is the county’s primary defense service contractor, and also that Daren Fales, Matthew Jessup, Summer Emmert, Mark Monson, Charles Kovis and J.A. Wright have all been court-appointed conflict attorneys during fiscal 2017.

The state legislature expanded the public defense commission’s authority and provided funding for grants last year. Last Friday, April 28, the Associated Press reported the Idaho Supreme Court has reinstated the class-action lawsuit first filed in 2015.

In a statement through the ACLU-Idaho Facebook account, that group described the ruling that reinstated the lawsuit as “monumental.”

“Every day thousands of Idahoans walk into courtrooms to face well-resourced prosecutors, police, and sheriffs trying to take their liberty away,” said Jason Williamson, Senior Staff Attorney ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project in the written statement. “This case is about making sure that every Idahoan has a fair chance against these daunting odds, and that their public defenders have all the resources they need to adequately defend against the full weight of the government.”


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