- Associated Press - Thursday, March 10, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Idaho budget writers have approved funneling $5.5 million to reform how the state provides legal representation to those who can’t afford their own attorney.

The move marks the first time the Idaho Legislature has taken significant action toward reforming Idaho’s public defense system after facing warnings for years the current structure is unconstitutional.

Members on the Joint Finance Appropriations Committee agreed on Thursday to pay for the Public Defense Commission creating new standards for indigent defense service and implementing a grant-application process for counties to offset the cost of complying with the stricter criteria.

The reforms stemmed from recommendations by a legislative interim committee studying the issue that has met during the past three years.

However, Thursday’s bill only applies to the funding mechanism. A separate bill that is also making its way through the Statehouse oversees the structure of carrying out the new standards.

“We had all kinds of different views, and I think nearly everything in the bill is a compromise - and so is this,” said Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho is currently appealing a decision to dismiss their class-action lawsuit that described the state’s current system as unconstitutional. Though the ACLU has brought similar cases over public defense systems in parts of Michigan, Washington state and other regions, attorneys on the Idaho lawsuit say it’s the first such case against an entire state.

The funding proposal still must pass through the House and Senate floors, but Joint Finance Appropriations Committee bills are rarely changed once passing the committee.

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