Councilmember Licata left office on January 1, 2016.
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Urban Politics #181: New Law Creates Standards For Public Defense Services

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

With assistance from my Legislative Aides Lisa Herbold and Newell Aldrich

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.


New Law Creates Standards For Public Defense Services

Last week the Council passed an ordinance that I authored, my colleagues Councilmembers David Della, Jean Godden and Peter Steinbrueck co-sponsored the bill with me.

For many years the City has contracted with King County to provide public defender services to indigent defendants. King County in turn contracted with 3 defender organizations, The Defender Association, the Associated Council for the Accused, and the Northwest Defenders Association. Mayor Nickels, in an effort to save costs, has decided to begin direct contracting with a provider. If we eliminate contracting with King County, the City will save $300,000. On its face there is nothing wrong with this approach, but before the Mayor moved ahead I felt it was important to pass legislation that offered some of the same safeguards that King County required when it was contracting for these services on behalf of the City.

Our nation’s constitution, as well as Washington State Law require, that each person charged with a crime punishable by loss of liberty or loss of fundamental rights, be provided with effective legal representation in order to ensure equal justice under law without regard to his or her ability to pay. Seattle has a model program replicated all over the Country.

As the backdrop to this discussion about changing Seattle’s highly regarded system of public defense, we find the Grant County public defense scandals and concern about competent representation in jurisdictions throughout the state-covered extensively in the Seattle Times news and editorial pages. (See this link if you want to read more:

In contracting directly with a provider, eliminating King County as the middle-man and realizing $300,000 in savings, we do not need to throw out all of the standards of our current system that provide for quality defense. The two primary issues this ordinance addresses are intended to ensure that in selecting a provider through a competitive bidding process we have proper safeguards in place. Here is a summary of the main things this bill accomplishes:

1) Non-profit status of the provider King County law requires that public defense agencies they contract with be non-profit. The provision of indigent public defense services by nonprofit service providers helps ensure a client focus by those entrusted with representing indigent persons. Additionally, a non-profit board of directors is generally representative of the community it serves. Now that Seattle is going to be contracting directly with providers for these services we must be similarly guided as we were when we worked through King County and Seattle defense services were informed by the protections contained in the King County Code.

This ordinance requires that the City enter into agreements to provide indigent defense services only with nonprofit corporations formed for the express purpose of providing legal services to persons eligible for representation through a public defense program.

2) Case load and standards for provision of services In 1982 the King County Bar Indigent Defense Services Task Force developed a 300 case per attorney, per year guideline. Subsequently the Seattle City Council adopted Resolution 27696 in 1987, adopting a framework and schedule for implementing recommendations contained in the 1987 Public Defender Salary and Caseload Review conducted by City Council staff. This led to the Council passing a 1989 City Council Budget Intent Statement establishing a 380 case per-attorney, per-year limit. The standard set by the City in 1987 may not be the optimum standard established by the King County Bar Indigent Defense Services Task Force, but it’s critical that in contracting for these services that we do not further erode this limit.

This bill reaffirms the caseload standards established in the City Council’s 1989 Budget Intent Statement. Specifically, this bill states that City agreements with indigent public defense service providers shall require caseloads no higher than 380 cases per-attorney per-year and it also affirms the Washington State Bar- endorsed supervision standard of one full-time supervisor for every ten staff lawyers.

Command Center Advisory Panel

In November 2003, Seattle voters passed the Fire Facilities Response and Emergency Levy. The levy included provisions to replace the City Emergency Operations Center, which is used for emergencies from power outages to civil disturbances; the Fire Alarm Center, which dispatches Fire Dept. units; and Fire Station 10, which serves the Pioneer Square and Chinatown/ International District.

While reviewing the overall ballot proposal before placing it on the ballot, the City decided to co-locate the three facilities to save costs.

The site selection was driven by the criteria for the Emergency Operations Center, which included a need for: level topography outside an earthquake liquefaction zone; a full City block; and proximity to the Civic Center and City officials (the current Emergency Operations Center is in Belltown, making immediate access is more difficult).

A number of sites were considered. The only one that met the criteria is located between 4th & 5th Avenue and between Yesler and S. Washington Street within the Chinatown/International District neighborhood.

While this site suits the needs of the City, it is a new impact in this neighborhood (Fire Station 10 had previously been in the Pioneer Square neighborhood), and raised concerns among members of the Chinatown/International District community about the impacts of the facility.

I and others met with community members to hear their concerns. Afterwards, I suggested creating a community advisory panel to advise the City on the design, function and initial operation of the command center. I worked with the community to ensure that the panel met their needs, and introduced the resolution (co-sponsored by Councilmembers Della, Godden, Rasmussen and Steinbrueck).

The resolution is designed to assist in “evaluating the design and function of the Command Center and to make recommendations on traffic impacts, pedestrian access, noise impacts, safety, community outreach, aesthetics, construction impacts, how the Command Center contributes to the neighborhood plan, streetscape improvements, and other community amenities, such as human services.”

It specifies that it serves to involve public participation, and will be composed of nine members from Chinatown/International District and Pioneer Square; four selected by Mayor, four by Chair of Council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Arts Committee; the Chair will be jointly selected.

The resolution also clarifies that it does not supersede the roles of the International District Special Review Board or the Seattle Design Commission, but exists in addition to them.

The resolution was passed unanimously by the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Arts committee on June 15, and will come before the Full Council on Monday, June 21.

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