EXCLUSIVE: WA cities warn reduced public defender caseload limits could result in dismissed cases, budget cuts

"There is an inadequate workforce to meet the proposed caseload standards given the current shortage of public defense attorneys in the state and nationally."

Ari Hoffman Seattle WA
Cities in Washington are expressing concerns to the state Supreme Court regarding a plan by the state bar association to reduce the caseload for public defenders, which has some concerned that cases will be dismissed and budgets will go up as the number of new attorneys needed will skyrocket.

The Association of Washington Cities (AWC) sent a letter to the Washington Supreme Court in March expressing concerns about the Washington State Bar Association (WSBA) Board of Governors’ recommended changes to the Washington Standards for Indigent Defense, also known as public defenders.

Earlier this month, the WSBA voted to adopt revised public defense standards, which included reducing caseload limits. According to the AWC website, “The WSBA standards provide guidance for cities and counties, and also were submitted as a recommendation to the Washington Supreme Court.”

Though the standards adopted by the WSBA Board of Governors are not binding, they may become so if adopted by the Washington Supreme Court or imposed in statute by the Legislature.

The revised standards were proposed to the WSBA by the Council on Public Defense, based on a response to a national study that claimed existing public defenders’ caseloads were too high.

In the AWC’s letter, the organization expressed concerns that costs would skyrocket.

“The State currently funds a small fraction of public defense costs, and the vast majority of the expenses are born by local governments. Public defense costs are paid out of a city’s general fund budget; funding for a city’s general fund is statutorily and constitutionally limited. Cities are constrained not only by the limits of their resident’s ability to pay but also by legal restrictions on the city’s ability to raise revenue.”

“A tripling of the required number of misdemeanor public defense attorneys would be a tremendous cost that far exceeds the capacities of cities to fund. If adopted, local government funding constraints will result in cities facing an untenable choice to cut critical programs, including funding for other court staff and judicial programs, as well as human service programs designed to address root causes of criminal behavior and keep individuals out of the criminal justice system.”

“Lastly, to implement reduced caseload standards, jurisdictions will require not only additional state funding but also a concerted legislative effort to increase the workforce pipeline for public defenders and support staff.”

Sources with knowledge of the issues told The Ari Hoffman Show on Talk Radio 570 KVI that there is also concern among the cities that because of the shortage of defenders and the resulting case backlog “lower-level crimes will just be dismissed or not even prosecuted.”

The state is already grappling with spiking crime and a revolving door justice system that sees prolific offenders released or “diverted” to “treatment” despite dozens of convictions.

The AWC estimates that by July 2025, the state “would need 70% more misdemeanor public defenders than we have today, in addition to the increased number of felony defense attorneys required under the proposed caseload standards.”

Additionally, “By July 2027, the proposed misdemeanor caseload standards would be reduced to 200 cases per year. This would require double the number of misdemeanor public defense attorneys compared to our current workforce. When considered in combination with the reduction in felony caseload standards, this would mean the state would need roughly triple the number of public defense attorneys.”

“Even if funding were provided by the state, jurisdictions will not be able to hire triple the number of public defense attorneys in three years compared to today. A reduced caseload standard will not result in three-times as many individuals being interested in pursuing a career in public defense in such a short amount of time.”

The AWC said while it “supports careful consideration of the caseload standards for indigent defense attorneys, the proposed standards are not financially feasible for local governments. Regardless of whether a city contracts with their county or provides their own public defenders, the financial implications of the WSBA adopted standards, if imposed as a mandate, would be drastic and unsustainable.”

“Additionally, even if funding were available, there is an inadequate workforce to meet the proposed caseload standards given the current shortage of public defense attorneys in the state and nationally.”

AWC sent a letter to WSBA before the adoption of the new standards "expressing our concerns with the proposed rule. Since then, we have heard from many cities with concerns about this issue.”

The AWC noted that it would be “reaching out directly to the Supreme Court with our concerns."
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