A state Supreme Court ruling on caseload limits will likely cause Grays Harbor County’s public defense costs to double.
Prosecutor Stew Menefee says that beginning next year the county commissioners ought to prepare themselves for a bit of sticker shock as indigent defense costs hit at least $1.8 million, if not more. The county budgeted to pay just $990,466 in contracted public defense services this year.
By a 7-2 vote in June, the state Supreme Court adopted new caseload limits for public defenders. Those who can’t afford an attorney have a constitutional right to one. The standards say that public defenders should not handle more than 300 to 400 misdemeanor cases or 150 felony cases a year.
The state Supreme Court said in a news release at the time that the caseloads were needed to deal with “serious flaws in the indigent defense system in Washington State.” The limits are designed to ensure attorneys have the time to devote to their clients.
Menefee said that although the standards are set to go into effect beginning in September 2013, the county uses annual contracts, which means the new standards become reality as soon as January.
“The lawyers are in the middle, getting squeezed, and you’re talking about a group of lawyers who have done an excellent job providing defense services,” Menefee said. “The Supreme Court doesn’t have the authority to tell a county what to do but they are telling an attorney that your livelihood is at risk because your license is on the line here. And since you reduce the number of contracts then that affects costs because they have to increase the cost to maintain an income level. The effect is we’re looking at substantial increased costs. We put double current costs in (budget plans) just as a placeholder. We know it’s going up at least double and it might well go beyond that.”
The new costs were found in the recently released budget request books compiled by the county’s budget office. The county commissioners aren’t even set to discuss next year’s budget until a special meeting slated for 9 a.m., Oct. 2. And the budget isn’t set to be approved until December, although Menefee will need some firm answers from the commissioners on what to do before then and how to fund the increases. Unless the county looks to cut other department budgets or gets a hefty boost in revenue, the most likely answer will be to come out of the county’s reserve balance, which stands at about $3.4 million today.
The county’s budget requests for the general fund add up to $26.2 million, which is $2.4 million more than this year’s projected $23.8 million operating budget. Besides indigent defense costs, there are still employee raises to consider, continued funding of courthouse security, funding a lawsuit with Superior Court judges brought against the county and assistance for the Assessor’s Office as it moves to an annual revaluation cycle as mandated by the state.
County Commissioner Herb Welch said he’s already been in touch with the county’s association to see what kind of options are available.
Commissioner Mike Wilson wondered if the time may be right to establish an official Office of Public Defense, instead of relying on county contracts.
Menefee cautioned against that option, noting that even if the county had its own employees, the caseloads would still be a factor.
“The caseloads will apply even if it’s our own office or not,” Menefee said. “It’s not going to be like my office right now, where I’ve got deputies handling close to 800 cases. Fair or not, there’s no such thing as a prosecutorial caseload.”
The cost for public defense has risen steadily through the years. Just two years ago, the county paid $694,752 to provide free legal counsel to those who can’t afford it. In 2011, those costs rose to $776,101. This year, the budgeted amount is $990,466. And in 2013, the budgeted request is $1,827,961.
At the same time, the state is only expected to chip in $68,161 to help Grays Harbor pay for those costs — a drop in the bucket compared to what the costs are expected to be, Menefee said.
Menefee said the main problem is that most of the attorneys who have contracts with the county to handle indigent defense also have their own practices, which they work on the side. Those attorneys supplement the average 375 county public defense cases with their own private cases. That sort of strategy will no longer be allowed, according to Menefee. Once they reach their cap, that’s it for them, Menefee said.
As a result, each case a public defender is assigned will come at a premium, pushing prices even higher, Menefee explained.
Also not allowed will be public defenders working multiple “full-time contracts.” For instance, someone with a full caseload for the juvenile detention center won’t be allowed to also handle a full caseload for district court.
Menefee said what the county could see happen is a whole lot more attorneys each handling 60 cases or a law firm handling a contract split between a dozen attorneys as they each manage their own caseloads.
Steven Friederich, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3927, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org