- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 17, 2014

MOSCOW, Idaho (AP) - County officials in Idaho are considering shifting public defense responsibilities to the state after struggling to meet constitutionally mandated funding and training requirements.

The Lewiston Tribune reports (https://bit.ly/YSZAj9) that nearly 200 representatives from Idaho’s 44 counties were scheduled to vote on the issue Wednesday in Moscow at the annual Idaho Association of Counties convention.

If passed, the resolution would be submitted to state lawmakers for approval when they convene in January for the 2015 Legislature. However, the resolution states that counties would continue to contribute $22 million that they are already paying for the system.

Association president Patty O. Weeks said the transition is needed because most counties are not equipped to manage public defense when funding varies between counties. She added that the system has been repeatedly accused of being unconstitutional because counties cannot give the same amount of resources across the state.

The system has also received criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho and other legal experts warning that it’s a potential target for lawsuits.

A 2010 report from the National Legal Aid and Defender Association found that Idaho’s public defenders’ caseloads were too high, some defendants weren’t meeting their lawyers until they were in court, and that some defendants felt pressure to take a plea agreement rather than face trial.

“It becomes more of a money issue for the county as opposed to a constitutional issue,” she said. “Ada County has an in-house public defense and they’re proud of that and that seems to be working for them. But for some of the other counties it’s a broken system and they’re really struggling.”

Weeks added that county commissioners tend to work part time and don’t have a law degree. This becomes a problem when commissioners are then asked to supervise an attorney and make financial decisions about system should be managed.

“There is the fallback of, ‘Oh, you’re going to give up local control. You always want local control.’ Well, we’re not suited for local control in public defense,” Weeks said.

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Information from: Lewiston Tribune, https://www.lmtribune.com

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