Bill passes to overhaul defense costs for violent sex offenders
A bill that would rein in legal costs of the most dangerous sex offenders has passed the Legislature and awaits Gov. Chris Gregoire's signature.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Part One: Expert Costs
Part Two: Predator Island
Part Three: Worst Case
Part Four: Challenges
Legislation that would rein in legal costs of the most dangerous sex offenders and could save taxpayers more than $1.8 million annually is awaiting Gov. Chris Gregoire's signature.
Senate Bill 6493, which passed the Legislature on Wednesday, would centralize oversight of defense costs for Washington's troubled civil-commitment program that locks up sexually violent predators.
The bill would help limit the amount spent defending sex offenders and would transfer their legal costs from the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), where there has been a lack of accountability, to the state Office of Public Defense.
"I see this as a great thing," said Brooke Burbank, state assistant attorney general in charge of civil commitments. "We've been asking for something like this — an agency whose sole responsibility is to look at the billing and make sure it's reasonable."
Gregoire's office said the governor supports the idea behind the bill, which unanimously passed both the House and Senate. If it's signed into law, the Office of Public Defense (OPD) would take control of costs July 1.
The Seattle Times found in its "Price of Protection" series published Jan. 22-25 that the state has little control over its $12 million a year in legal bills spent to keep sex offenders detained beyond prison.
Under Washington's civil-commitment law, the state can indefinitely detain sex offenders deemed by a judge or a jury to be too dangerous to set free. The offender has a right to a defense team, which is almost always funded by public money.
DSHS pays for the legal and expert costs, but has little control over them. Local judges authorize expenditures, then invoices pass through a statewide web of county officials and end up at DSHS for reimbursement.
The Times found DSHS couldn't track the legal costs of individual sex offenders nor completely monitor the spending.
If offenders are deemed sexually violent predators, they are sent to live at the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island, where more than 280 sex offenders are housed.
OPD says most of the savings would come from eliminating hourly billing by defense attorneys. OPD would instead create annual contracts with up to 24 lawyers and several support staff members to do all the defense work statewide, paying them salaries similar to those who prosecute the sex-offender commitment cases for the Attorney General's Office.
A sex offender would also be limited to one publicly funded attorney, except in rare circumstances. In many King County cases, the public paid for two attorneys to represent an offender facing civil commitment.
OPD also would take over reimbursement of expert witnesses hired by the defense.
The state could save approximately $1.2 million in defense costs in fiscal 2013, according to a legislative report.
The bill would also transfer prosecution costs, including state psychological evaluations, from DSHS to the Attorney General's Office. That office would pay the King County Prosecutor's Office to litigate King County's share of the cases, which account for about one third of the commitment proceedings statewide.
"The legislation changes the process of both prosecution and defense and creates more transparency and accountability in the use of taxpayer dollars," said Sen. Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma, who sponsored the bill.
Burbank said part of the savings for both the defense and prosecution would be shorter and possibly fewer continuances in civil commitment cases.
The Times found offenders facing civil commitment routinely postponed their trials for years, driving up costs and wasting state money. One trial was delayed for 11 years.
"There will be no incentive to drag the cases out" because defense attorneys won't be billing by the hour, Burbank said.
The change would also cut down on scheduling conflicts due to fewer attorneys working on a case and the elimination of multiple psychological experts, she added.
The OPD would submit annual reports to the Washington Supreme Court, the Governor's Office and the Legislature, providing information on spending and the reasons and number of continuances granted in sexually violent predator cases.
Christine Willmsen: 206-464-3261 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Christinesea.