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Published on Monday, June 2, 2014

Cities preparing to implement public defense case load limits

As cities start to develop their budgets for 2015, public defense costs should be part of the discussion. The State Supreme Court adopted new public defense standards in 2012, but delayed implementation of the portion of the standard that included misdemeanor caseload limits until January 2015. Cities are now preparing to fully implement these standards including the new caseload limits. Even cities that already comply with the caseload limit may see their costs rise as defense attorneys adjust their rates to reflect the changing system. Recently, some cities are seeing per case rates rise from around $150 per case to $400 per case.

The new caseload limit is 400 cases per year, per public defender, or 300 cases per defender if the jurisdiction adopts a case-weighting system. The State Office of Public Defense recently developed its own case-weighting model policy as a tool for jurisdictions who are looking at developing a case-weighting system.

Cities can expect more scrutiny, and even legal challenges over their public defense programs. The recent court case against Mt. Vernon and Burlington resulted in a $2 million judgment. It is likely that other cities could be subject to similar challenges.

The new standards that took effect in 2012 require public defenders to certify quarterly, to the presiding judge in each court that they practice in, that they are in compliance with the standards. Jurisdictions should be asking whether the compliance requirements are being met, and clarifying who is retaining the certification records, especially if there is a future legal challenge.

The Washington Association of Municipal Attorneys featured this issue during their recent spring conference including a presentation by Scott Snyder of Ogden Murphy Wallace. Mr. Snyder’s materials may be helpful to cities as they consider steps to take in implementing the new caseload limits.

The House Judiciary Committee asked the Office of Public Defense to convene a stakeholder workgroup this interim to examine ways to address the impacts and costs associated with the new caseload limits. AWC will be an active participant in this workgroup, and will report regularly on the workgroup’s progress.

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