Letters to the Editor

Public defenders support King County Proposition One | Federal Way letters

In 1963, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that people who are facing criminal charges, but are too poor to hire lawyers, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided. Ever since, public defenders in counties and cities across the country have fought to protect the rights of the poorest among us who find themselves accused of a crime so that the justice a person receives is not measured by the pennies in his pocket. Gideon’s promise of a fair trial means that public defenders must vigorously defend their clients. They cannot fail to investigate defenses. Once a person facing the risk of incarceration is determined indigent, our public defenders must assist that defendant because the law requires it.

But Gideon’s promise is in dire danger of being broken in King County. The proposed 2011 King County budget calculated the expected cost of delivering defense services for 2011, but does not provide the required funding. Instead, the budget proposes cutting public defense funding by 9.1 percent. If the workload of the public defenders were reduced, accommodating such cuts with layoffs could be achieved. However, unlike other government agencies, public defenders cannot reduce their workload. Once a case is assigned to the public defenders, they are legally required to represent that client in a constitutionally appropriate manner. Neither can public defenders do more with less by accepting more work per attorney and reducing personnel.

King County public defenders are legally required to comply with state and national maximum caseload standards to ensure their clients are not saddled with attorneys who are unable to adequately represent them due to being over-burdened. Because of these maximum caseload standards, it’s not legally possible for the public defenders to reduce costs by implementing attorney layoffs absent lower case assignments.

The public defenders are required to staff sufficient attorneys to handle the assigned cases without exceeding the maximum caseload standards. After years of budget crisis here in King County, the public defenders have cut everything they can. They are operating on pencil-thin overheads and red-lined budgets. Over the past few years support staff positions have been cut below recommended levels, wages have been frozen, and furloughs, up to 48 per year, have been implemented.

Meanwhile, the public defense system is already operating at 20 percent over capacity, according to a 2010 study conducted in King County by the Spangenberg Group. Realistically, the only viable way to reduce public defense costs at this point is to reduce the number of cases that come in the door. Absent a sudden swing to more financially viable defendants, which is unlikely given the current economic climate, the number of cases assigned to the public defenders is reduced only if change is implemented in the way that crimes are charged and prosecuted.

But asking our police and prosecutors to implement reductions in charging crimes places our communities and our citizens at great risk, and is not an appropriate solution. It should not be done. Our police should be free to investigate crimes and our prosecutors must remain free to prosecute them. Instead, all of us in King County must commit to fulfilling Gideon’s promise while maintaining safety priorities in our neighborhoods. The King County Council has placed a proposition on the November ballot to fund criminal justice programs, including police, prosecution, probation, public defense, and services for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault at their current levels.

Proposition One adds a two-tenths of one cent increase to King County’s sale’s tax, which equates to only two pennies on a ten dollar purchase. Proposition One will raise $60 million per year dedicated to funding criminal justice, and will enable King County to protect our neighborhoods, prosecute crimes, and fulfill Gideon’s promise. Please support King County Proposition One.

Ramona Brandes, Federal Way

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