Public defense commission tells lawmakers full recommendations won't be ready for next session

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BOISE, Idaho — A new commission tasked with overseeing improvements to Idaho's broken public defense system is asking lawmakers to prioritize where the work should begin.

Third District Judge Molly Huskey, who sits on the Public Defense Commission, asked a group of lawmakers Thursday whether they wanted the commission to first come up with recommendations on the minimum qualifications for public defenders or to focus on the contract terms that counties should use in working with them.

Legal experts have warned that Idaho's patchwork system for providing criminal defense attorneys to poor residents doesn't meet constitutional fair trial standards. For the past four years, the Idaho Criminal Justice Commission and lawmakers have studied the issue, and earlier this year, Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter signed a law creating the Public Defense Commission to oversee public defenders and provide training.

But the problem is too complex to fix in a couple of months, Huskey told an interim legislative committee.

"We just want to make sure that what we deliver is thoughtful that we've really looked at any potential consequences and that you have the best information to make your decision with," Huskey said. "We won't have an answer for you in October or even possibly in November, but we will have some recommendations. It just won't be well vetted."

In 2010, a report from the National Legal Aid and Defender Association found that Idaho isn't satisfying its Sixth Amendment obligations to defendants. Among the issues, public defenders' caseloads were too high, some defendants didn't meet their lawyers until they were in the courtroom, and defendants sometimes felt pressured to accept a plea agreement rather than go to trial.

Some of the standards the commission will examine include limits on the number of cases a public defender can take on at one time and what resources a public defender should have available. But before recommendations can be made, the commission needs a solid picture of practices across the state — a process that is incomplete, Huskey said.

Meanwhile, counties are wondering what impact changes will have on their budgets and how much money the state will spend on the problem. Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, asked Huskey how sensitive the commission would be about costs.

"All of us understand the funding constraints that the counties are operating under," Huskey said. "I don't think any of us envision this 'luxury penthouse in New York' kind of model. I think all of us are looking at a 'farmhouse in Idaho' kind of model."

Dan Chadwick, the executive director of the Idaho Association of Counties, said that more than half of the county public defense contracts will expire within the year. The association has passed a resolution urging the state to control and fund a statewide public defense system.

The counties could chip in the nearly $24 million a year they already spend on public defense for the statewide effort, Chadwick said.

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