- Associated Press - Thursday, September 18, 2014

MOSCOW, Idaho (AP) - County officials in Idaho approved a resolution Wednesday that would give the state the responsibility of managing the system that assigns public defenders to defendants who can’t afford an attorney.

Nearly 200 representatives from the state’s 44 counties voted on the proposal at the annual Idaho County Association conference in northern Idaho. The resolution will now go before state lawmakers for approval when they convene in January for the 2015 Legislature.

Association president Patty O. Weeks said county commissioners often don’t have law degrees and end up making decisions on how to manage the public defense system based on finances rather than legal strategy.

“It’s a hot topic, and I think now we have to turn to the Legislature to see if they have the will to make this a statewide, uniform system,” Weeks said.

Under the proposal, the state would control and fund the system, and also would create statewide standards on training and overseeing contracts.

However, the counties would continue to contribute $22 million that they already pay for the system.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho and other legal experts have warned lawmakers that Idaho’s public defense system is a potential target for lawsuits.

A 2010 report found that Idaho’s public defender’s caseloads were too high and some defendants weren’t meeting with their lawyers until they were in court, while other defendants felt pressure to take a plea agreement rather than face trial.

Since the report’s release, Idaho lawmakers and the Idaho Criminal Justice Commission have studied the issue and the Legislature has passed a handful of bills to improve pieces of the system. For example, lawmakers agreed earlier this year to create a special Public Defense Commission to oversee Idaho’s public defenders and provide them with adequate training.

During Wednesday’s conference, Ada County officials -representing the most populated county in Idaho- attempted to amend the proposal to allow an opt-out option for counties content with how they run their own system.

The amendment was overwhelmingly vetoed by the rest of the county officials.

Supporters of a statewide system say the state would level the playing field among the state’s counties and make sure each one can provide the proper resources.

“Standards would be good so that everybody knows what the expectations are,” said Cathy Mabbut, one of Latah County’s three contracted public defenders. “I think it’s definitely worth looking at.”

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