MYNORTHWEST NEWS

WA public defender shortage leads to alleged gap in representation

Jan 26, 2024, 5:05 AM

Public defender...

‘Rights are being violated’: WA public defender shortage leads to alleged gap in representation. (KIRO 7)

(KIRO 7)

The state is running low on public defenders and the Director of the Office of Public Defense says the situation is dire.

Between growing caseloads and attorneys quitting faster than they’re getting hired, defenders are working around the clock to represent those who can’t afford attorneys on their own.

The Director, Larry Jefferson, even sent a letter to the Washington Supreme Court back in November asking to stop assigning public defenders’ new cases with defendants not in custody for 90 days starting January 1.



This means that only defendants in jails would be assigned attorneys.

That request was denied, and Jefferson says defendants across the state aren’t getting the same representation.

“The average person has no idea the average person assumes when they get to court, they’re going to have a lawyer that person is going to listen to them and that person is going to fight for them,” said Jefferson. That’s what every person deserves and that’s what we don’t have.”

Per Jefferson, the public defense system in Washington is funded by the county.

So how well someone is defended is based on how much tax money that county brings in.

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“Justice by geography means that basically you only have justice if you are poor based on how much your county spends on its public defense services,” said Jefferson. “I believe that those rights are being violated right now for people who can’t get their case investigated.”

The Washington State Association of Counties said in a statement in part:

Washington’s 39 Counties are now spending over $200 million annually to provide public defense services that the State of Washington is constitutionally responsible for. The state is contributing less than $6 million annually, or barely 3%, to counties for these public defense services.

Washington State ranks nearly dead last in the nation in funding trial court public defense services.

“Each county in the state of Washington is separately responsible for public defense so some counties have a public defense office,” Larry Jefferson explained. “Some counties have contractors and some counties they don’t have public defense, anybody.”

“What happens is that people sit in jail, and they don’t have any representation,” he added.

Jefferson says low pay and high caseloads are some reasons there are not enough public defenders in the state.



According to state statute set in 1973, a defense attorney can’t have more than 150 cases a year.

A 2023 RAND study shows that number should be cut by about 60% with a max of 59 cases per year. Also, per that RAND study, a murder case on average takes up about 248 hours of work for an attorney. The Washington numbers per Jefferson give attorneys about 12 hours to work on a murder case.

“Let’s say you got a murder case and your lawyer only worked on it for 12 hours do you think you’d be upset when you got to trial? I think it’d be upset,” Jefferson said.

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Prosecutors’ offices are dealing with similar issues which are trickling down to all levels of the justice system.

“If you cannot get someone to defend this person they have a right to that defense by our constitution,” said Thurston County Sheriff, Derek Sanders. “The reports don’t go away but I can see scenarios where we’re going to end up where we just didn’t have anyone to get this person in front of the courts for another day and they’re being held on no bail and at some point, you’re going to have to release that person if you can’t bring charges forward and represent them.”

Thurston County has legislation going into effect this summer that will add more dollars to public defense.

A bill SB 5773 is working its way through Olympia. It would have incentives to get people into public defense along with having the state cover half the costs for public defense by 2028.

As stated in the Association of Counties statement above, the state right now only covers about 3% of those costs.

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WA public defender shortage leads to alleged gap in representation