Public Defenders office in WyCo
Wyandotte County is one of the two major counties lacking a public defenders office. A public defenders office provides legal aid to those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. Public defenders are of vital importance in having a fair and just legal system. Only 27 percent of county-based and 21 percent of state-based public defender’s offices have enough lawyers to appropriately handle their caseloads, the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) found in 2011.
“There’s discussion that there’s no money for repairing the roads, for education; but public defense, for whatever reason, is on the lowest priority list, even though it impacts the communities probably the most,” Tvedt said.
In Missouri, the state’s public defenders spend an average of nine hours on certain felony cases that really need about 47 hours of work, a 2014 American Bar Association study found.
There is no federal mandate for how states fund public defense, and though most public defender’s offices rely on state money for most or all of their funding, 19 states shift that responsibility to the counties.
Since 1992, Mark Stephens, the head of the public defender’s office in Knox County, Tennessee, has only been able to use state money to pay for four new lawyers on his 26-person legal staff. That sluggish growth has made it difficult to respond to the increasing size of police departments and changes in prosecution techniques like the advent of DNA testing, he said.
In Kansas the PD’s office is funded by the State Board of Indigent Defense Services, which is separate and apart from the Court and prosecutor’s office. The Court simply assigns the case and has nothing further to do with the representation of the accused.
The second system is the “private appointment” public defender system. In Wyandotte County there is no public defender’s office. The Judges in Wyandotte County who preside over the criminal cases keep a list of private attorneys to appoint to the various cases. When a defendant is unable to retain counsel, the judge hearing the case chooses an attorney from their list. Each appointment list is comprised of multiple attorneys, all of which are in private practice and given permission by the local judge to be on the list. The attorneys vary in years of experience, office standards, and level of cases they have handled.
I have not mentioned cost here but only because it needs and deserves further study. Little is known regarding the actual cost benefit analysis of a private defender system versus a public defender’s office. But taxpayers should be aware, however, if we are fostering a system which is substantially more expensive than other defender systems. As the fourth-largest county in the state, we have a fiscal responsibility to ensure we are prudently spending tax dollars while responsibly pursuing justice. An objective cost analysis should be undertaken to determine the value of our current system.
The 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that every person has a right to counsel in a criminal case.27 The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the state is obligated to ensure all indigent defendants are provided with effective assistance of counsel.28 Public defense in Kansas is provided primarily through the State Board of Indigent Defense, as well as through assigned counsel programs. Public defenders ensure that the rights of individuals charged with crimes are protected and play a key role in identifying policing practices, conduct, or actions impacting individual rights.29 Concerns around a lack of statewide standards for the provision of defense services, along with high caseloads and limited resources, continue to pose challenges for indigent defense.30 The following are recommendations related to public defense:
Expand public defender’s offices.
PD.1 | STATE/AGENCY, LEGISLATIVE
Kansas should require a public defender’s office in any county with a population greater than 100,000. Public defenders cost less than court-appointed attorneys, are available for first appearances, provide continuity in case coverage, and have more accountability within the criminal justice system. Having organized offices rather than contract attorneys also allows for training, mentorship, and professional development within the organization, similar to prosecutor’s offices in the same jurisdiction.
Fund public defenders on par with local prosecutor’s offices.
PD.2 | LEGISLATIVE
Kansas funds public defenders out of the State General Fund, but funds prosecutors on a county level. This leads to a disparity of funds provided to two Constitutionally-mandated offices.
Added funding for public defender’s offices will help to alleviate high turnover, subpar representation, heavy caseloads, and public defender’s offices struggling to operate due to lack of revenue.