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Defending the Poor

Idaho public defenders lack state support, standards

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Idaho's patchwork system of county public defenders increasingly jeopardizes the Sixth Amendment right to counsel for the state's poor and puts the state on the hook for violating the right to a fair trial, a new report from the National Legal Aid and Defender Association finds.

"While there are admirable qualities of some of the county indigent defense services, NLADA finds that none of the public defense systems in the sample counties are constitutionally adequate," the report states.

The NLADA looked at seven counties, including Ada and Canyon, and found that in every one of them public defenders were working more cases than national standards recommend, allowing them inadequate time with their clients.

"When you're simply processing cases and not getting it right, people could be going to jail for crimes they did not commit, and that leaves the true perpetrator on the street," said David Carroll, research director for NLADA.

Ada County public defender Alan Trimming said his office's caseload is large but that the report's statistics are overly broad.

"Do our delivery of services meet Constitutional standards? My answer to that is yes. Would we like to have additional staff? My answer to that is also yes,"said Trimming.

According to the report, Ada County public defenders saw an average of 952 felony clients per lawyer, allowing them 2.18 hours on each felony case. The American Bar Association recommends defenders carry about 150 felony cases per year, Carroll said.

Idaho, through its Criminal Justice Commission, has been aware of growing caseloads in the public defender system since at least 2007. An earlier NLADA study found that excessive workloads in the State Appellate Public Defenders Office could be offset by better representation in the lower courts.

A Justice Commission study group is already reviewing the report and will make recommendations by the fall, according to Patricia Tobias, administrative director at the Idaho Supreme Court.

While the NLADA declines to make specific recommendations, acknowledging that a local solution is better, Carroll points to neighboring states, including Oregon and Montana, where the state has taken over funding and management of indigent defense from the problematic county-based system.

"That's a common theme with failing systems," Carroll said. "It's our position that the Gideon case requires states, not counties to do this."

The 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright case established that lawyers are "necessities, not luxuries" in the courtroom and that the state must provide counsel to those who can't afford it. Thirty states now fully fund indigent defense systems, relieving counties of the burden and three more states fund most of their system.

Idaho does not fund public defense at the state level, nor are there any statewide institutions that monitor or aid pubic defenders.