- Associated Press - Monday, March 3, 2014

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - A state House panel backed a bill to tackle problems with Idaho’s public defender system, voting Monday to send it forward to the full House despite warnings that it could open up the state for a lawsuit.

The bill would create a public defense commission, tasked with creating rules, implementing training and shoring up data reporting.

Legal experts have warned that Idaho’s public defense system is likely unconstitutional, citing high case loads and low funding for contract public defenders.

Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, the bill’s sponsor, says it won’t fix every issue plaguing the system but creating a commission would be a step in the right direction. It would replace an interim committee created last year tasked with finding solutions for the system’s woes.

“The intent of the interim committee was to fix that system somewhat,” he said. “We realize it’s not going to happen in one year.”

Bolz hopes to create a longer-term group, with $300,000 going toward setting up the commission and training for public defenders.

The bill would allow counties to choose whether to set up a public defender’s office or contract with lawyers from other counties. It also takes away the option of a flat fee contract, which pays attorneys a lump sum to take on all cases.

That could shift some of the cost to counties that might now need to hire more people or switch their system.

Tony Poinelli, deputy director of the Idaho Association of Counties, says his organization backs the bill, though counties are still figuring out how they would restructure if it passes.

Monica Hopkins, executive director of the Idaho chapter of the ACLU, says the bill doesn’t go far enough to reduce the burden on public defenders and won’t protect Idaho from being sued on constitutional grounds.

“We appreciate the hard work that existing public defenders have done in our state, but they are being asked to operate under unmanageable caseloads with limited resources in an unconstitutional system,” she said. “HB542 does not go far enough in creating an independent, properly funded, comprehensive enough system that the public can trust.”

Hopkins said the ACLU won’t get behind the proposal until lawmakers put out a companion bill that allocates state money to pick up some of the tab for a system that could cost an estimated $20 million to $30 million more than the millions counties are already spending.

If it doesn’t, she said, the state risks a court enforcing changes to the public defender system.

Alan Trimming, Ada County public defender, also thought the bill needed work. Only one of the commission’s seven members is required to have experience as a public defender, something Trimming called inadequate.

“A public defender commission that’s going to make efforts to define and potentially enforce statewide standards should have public defenders on it,” he said.

Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, said he understands opponents’ concerns, but it might be too late to tweak the bill. Hold it too long, and the state runs the risk of getting nothing, he said.

“I’m concerned about the lateness of the hour; we really need to get this through,” he said. “If we stick it out in general orders, there’s no telling if we’ll ever see it again.”

The bill could still be amended if it reaches the Senate side.

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow and the only committee member to vote against the bill, said the panel should not push forward a bill that dumps the real cost onto counties.

“To me, it’s a question of whether we put something in place and then have the will to follow through and fund it adequately,” she said.

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