In the face of a recent federal court decision and a new state mandate, the Aberdeen City Council voted unanimously Wednesday night to more than double spending for public defenders who represent people who can’t afford attorneys for their Municipal Court cases.
The city’s contract for indigent defense had to be renegotiated due to new case load limits for public defenders that take effect Jan. 1. The state standards, along with a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, place strict guidelines on public defenders’ law practices too, City Attorney Eric Nelson explained.
Essentially, public defenders must now limit their case loads, have an office, a complaint system and an auditing system to keep track of cases. The new rules aim to provide a better quality of defense to the indigent as well as fairer compensation to the attorneys who defend them.
Under the current contract, without the new standards, the city’s two public defenders are paid a combined $92,304 a year, the staff report says. The new contract will cost $200,000 for the work of two full time attorneys and the operation of their office, Harbor Defense LLC. The public defenders, John Gibson and associate Mike Nagle, work from the Old World building across the street from the court.
The new contract with Harbor Defense will cover the primary case load of the court. The council also approved a request Wednesday for proposals for other attorneys to cover additional work if Harbor Defense’s case load is greater than anticipated, Nelson’s staff recommendation said.
New Municipal Court Judge Susan Solan, Gibson, Nagle and Nelson all spoke favorably of the proposed contract at a July meeting of the council’s Finance Committee.
“We recognize that this is a substantial increase from the present contract, but a substantial increase is inevitable in the new world of public defense services we are entering,” wrote Nagle in their proposal.
Councilman Tim Alstrom questioned the size of the increase and expansion of a part-time public defender office manager to full-time.
He also wondered whether the public defenders were seeking parity with the salary paid the city’s prosecutor.
Nelson pointed to the complicated system of weighting cases, which will now be classified by a point system in which more serious or complicated defense cases are assigned a higher number. Public defenders will be paid from $250 to $450 per case. The county currently pays $250 per case, the rate that will also be paid to freelance attorneys taking up the overflow of public defender cases in Aberdeen. (The higher rate of $450 is often is paid in King County), Nelson said.
The new contract will allow for Harbor Defense to be paid around $333 per case, depending on its final case load numbers.
The increase is worth it because these public defenders have a sound track record with the city, have an office close by, will track their cases and report on them to the city, Nelson said.
If the same number of cases were parceled out to several different freelance attorneys at $250 per case, it would likely end up costing more due to the new requirements for overhead and administration, he said. The days of a new attorney working freelance as a public defender out of the back of a car are over, Nelson said.
Under the new rules, public defenders must limit their practice, Nelson explained. He also noted that the city’s prosecutor and staff are paid more when pensions, sick leave, vacation and other benefits are considered.
The city may have to be selective in prosecuting some charges, Nelson said. This could include prosecutions for “driving while suspended 3,” considered a relatively minor crime and often levied against economically disadvantaged people who fall into a repeat cycle of fines and unpaid fines that result in more fines while faced with decisions such as paying the court vs. paying car insurance.
More probation violation cases may be settled as well, he said.
The new public defender contract is good for a calendar year to give both parties a chance to explore the new world of public defense, Nelson said, responding to a question put by Councilwoman Kathi Hoder in the council meeting. It can then be modified according to what is learned about the new paradigm concerning case loads and cost. The cost is estimated to double and triple in many locations and Aberdeen is being progressive by amending the contract now, he said.