Clallam seeks public defense attorneys

Clallam County is seeking lawyers to represent alleged criminals who can’t afford to hire an attorney.

Commissioners on March 21 issued a request for proposals to provide primary criminal defense for indigent defendants and others facing commitment or incarceration.

The proposals will be opened in a public meeting May 9.

Clallam County is seeking a five-year contract with a public defense firm to handle criminal cases in Superior Court, Juvenile Court and District Court.

The multi-year contract was recommended last December by the Ad Hoc Committee for Public Defense Services.

The committee also recommended that Clallam County maintain its current system of having one firm represent defendants in all three courts rather than a split system that was previously considered.

“Thanks to the citizen volunteers who spent so much time helping us think through this issue last year,” Commissioner Mark Ozias said at the meeting.

“I’m glad that we’re able to start moving forward based upon their hard work and recommendations.”

Clallam Public Defender has provided public defense for Clallam County citizens for the past 40 years.

Clallam County has signed a series of one-year contract extensions with the nonprofit organization, often late in the budget cycle, in four of the past five years.

“We don’t want to keep doing that,” Commissioner Randy Johnson said in a March 13 work session.

The Ad Hoc Committee for Public Defense Services, which was composed of local attorneys and others with knowledge of the criminal justice system, recommended a long-term pact to provide more certainty for the contract firm and its staff.

A split public defense system was mulled after it was announced in late 2015 that Clallam Public Defender director Harry Gasnick and District Court Judge Rick Porter had a “long-standing and very serious dispute.”

The ad hoc committee determined that a split system for District Court and Superior Court — Juvenile Court is part of Superior Court — would result in a duplication of services.

“Further, it would not be cost effective to set up a separate entity with the added need for office space, support staff, etc.,” committee president John Troberg wrote in the panel’s final recommendations.

“The committee felt that if conflicts arise between the courts and the public defender’s office that there were established grievance procedures available for both the judiciary and the public defender’s office, i.e. the judicial review board and the bar association.”

The committee recommended that Clallam County take steps to achieve salary parity between the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and the contracting public defense firm.

The state Supreme Court has mandated that public defenders be paid as much as their counterparts in prosecuting attorneys offices.

The high court also established caseload standards for public defenders.

Salaries for deputy prosecuting attorneys are tied to a percentage of Superior Court judges’ salaries, which were raised in 2015 and 2016.

Despite recent efforts to level the playing field, deputy prosecutors are now earning more than public defenders, County Administrator Jim Jones has said.

Clallam County budgeted to spend $1.25 million this year for indigent defense, up from $1.14 million in 2016 and $930,240 in 2015.

Jones estimated that Clallam County’s indigent defense costs have tripled in the 11 years he has been the administrator.

“It’s not because of waste, fraud or abuse, or anybody holding us up,” Jones said in the March 13 work session.

“It is because the Supreme Court, primarily, has mandated a few things.”

Rob Ollikainen is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. He can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at rollikainen@peninsula dailynews.com.

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