Public defenders handling too many cases, city reports
Public defenders for Seattle's Municipal Court are handling too many cases, according to a report by City Auditor Susan Cohen released Monday...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Public defenders for Seattle's Municipal Court are handling too many cases, according to a report by City Auditor Susan Cohen released Monday.
David Jones, a deputy city auditor, called the overload "significant."
"Ultimately it's the defendant who could be hurt because the attorney is not going to have his or her time to prepare an adequate defense," Jones said.
The city hires public-defense agencies to represent indigent clients accused of misdemeanors and other, lesser crimes. According to city law, each attorney should handle a maximum of 380 cases a year. The auditor's office found that the caseload for a third of public defenders exceeded that number.
Presiding Judge for Seattle Municipal Court Ron Mamiya said the 380-case maximum is "obsolete and needs immediate review," according to a letter he sent Mayor Greg Nickels. The letter suggested the city should spend more money on public defenders.
Marianne Bichsel, spokeswoman for the mayor, said the defendants at Municipal Court, where misdemeanor cases are processed, still receive quality legal representation. "We have one of the lowest caseloads in the state," she said.
City Councilmembers Nick Licata and Richard McIver requested the audit, and Licata plans to discuss a resolution on Tuesday to review and possibly lower the caseload maximum.
Washington Public Defenders Association recommends a maximum caseload of 300.
Jones said it was difficult to determine whether the defense attorneys were consulting with their clients before their hearings. Based on the anecdotes he heard, "It seemed like attorneys were just meeting people before they had their pretrial hearing," he said. The audit also said the system for defendants to lodge complaints about public defense was confusing.
Previously, the city contracted three public-defense firms through the county to divide up the workload evenly. Three years ago, the mayor decided to handle the contracts directly to save money and to have more control over the public-defense firms. "This gives us the ability to have more control and improve services we're giving indigent defense," Bichsel said.
The city hired two firms: the Associated Counsel of the Accused, which handles 90 percent of the cases, and The Defender Association, which handles 10 percent.
Judge Mamiya wrote in his July 22 letter that "Beginning in 2004, the court has been very vocal that the Secondary Defender attorney FTEs (funds) are insufficient."
He also expressed concern that the city would seek new bids for the $5 million contract before the audit was completed and that its recommendations could be included in the new contract.
On July 27, the city put out a request for bids for the public-defense contract.
Bichsel said the city does not plan to make any changes in how the contract is set up.
Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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