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Published on Friday, July 13, 2012

Indigent defense update

On June 15, the Washington State Supreme Court adopted misdemeanor caseload standards for public defenders. AWC, the Washington State Association of Municipal Attorneys (WSAMA), the Washington State Association of Counties (WSAC), and others repeatedly expressed concerns about the proposed standards as the Court considered them. The misdemeanor caseload standards have a delayed effective date of September 1, 2013. Essentially, the standards limit the caseload of a full-time public defender to 300 or 400 misdemeanor cases per year, depending on whether the jurisdiction has developed a case weighting system.

AWC opposed the specific standard, as it does not fully take into account the experience of an individual attorney or the level of complexity of cases handled by municipal courts. Cities are concerned that the new rule will simply cost more without resulting in higher quality public defense. Opponents of the rule have maintained that the Court is overstepping its authority by effectively directing local government resources via rule without clear and convincing evidence of widespread incidence of inadequate assistance of counsel. As a result, a number of cities may stop prosecuting certain types of cases because they cannot afford the cost of public defense for these cases – effectively decriminalizing certain low-level crimes via court rules as opposed to a thoughtful policy decision made by a legislative body.

Local governments are now evaluating how best to comply with the new rule while also exploring options for revisiting the rule through possible legal action or seeking legislative assistance. The issue has also sparked interest within the media. Check out a recent article in the Tri-City Herald and a story by Austin Jenkins.

The final rule can be found here.

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