BOISE • The committee charged with revamping Idaho’s public defense system met again on Wednesday to go over some of the language in their draft bill and talk about how far the money to fix the system would go.
Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter has put $5 million into his proposed 2016-17 budget to pay for the committee’s recommendations.
Part of the discussion was on whether indigent defense grants included in the bill should cover 15 percent of a county’s expenses or more. Some lawmakers on the Public Defense Reform Interim Committee called for lower than 15 percent because covering more would quickly eat through the $5 million.
Co-Chairman Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, said the grants could cost up to $4.2 million at 15 percent. Plus, he said, they would need money for lawyer training and to hire more staff for the Public Defense Commission.
“Between all those things, we’re probably at the $5 million mark if we go for the 15 percent,” Lakey said.
The committee is tentatively scheduled to meet again on Thursday, Jan. 21.
The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the state, saying its public defense system is unconstitutionally inadequate. ACLU Public Policy Strategist Kathy Griesmyer said after the meeting that, while there are good aspects to the proposed bill, it needs enough funding, and $5 million probably isn’t enough.
“I would be surprised if that really gets at what we need,” she said.
Twin Falls County Public Defender Marilyn Paul, who testified Wednesday, thanked the committee for including language in the bill calling for pay parity between prosecuting and defense attorneys, saying higher pay in prosecutors’ offices makes it hard for public defenders to keep lawyers.
Paul also said paying expert witnesses in non-capital cases is a big problem for public defenders’ offices, as is money for training. She said her office has been well funded when it comes to continuing legal education, “but attorneys in some other counties don’t fare so well.”
Paul also read a letter from Mini-Cassia Public Defender Dennis Byington, who had planned to come but had to be in court. He said his office has had to hire 10 new attorneys since it was formed in 2005 because it loses them to local prosecutors or other jobs. Byington said his office’s caseload has gone from 1,607 new cases in 2006 to 2,173 new cases in 2014, and that his office already can’t accept post-conviction appeals or many contempt cases as a result.
“It is not that our attorneys can’t be prepared,” Byington wrote. “But there is just not enough time to barely competently handle the workload we have.”
Byington said the pay means his office often has to hire newly licensed attorneys with little or no experience, and that there is little time for the more experienced lawyers to train them.
“If we cannot keep our new, young attorneys, the training and money is going to prosecutors’ offices who then have to train less and spend less because of the public defender monies,” he wrote.