Urban Politics #239: The Quality of Public Defense Services

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.  With assistance from my LA Lisa Herbold.

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.



In 2004, Council passed Ordinance 121501 to “adopt standards for the delivery of public defense services” in accordance with RCW 10.101.030 and 10.101.060. You may recall that I’ve written about this issue before. Click here to see Urban Politics 181.

State law requires the establishment of such standards for Cities and Counties contracting for public defense services.   Prior to the passage of this law in 2004, the City didn’t have an ordinance establishing standards. The reason there was no such City ordinance was because before 2004, King County did the contracting of public defense services for the City. Consequently, the King County Code governed the City standards.

In passing Ordinance 121501, the Council adhered to the State requirement to establish standards.  But also, since King County’s Office of Public Defense is a nationally recognized model, in passing Ordinance 121501 the Council was making the following policy statement: if the City was going to opt out of a successful system for a budget savings it was critical that the quality of defense services didn’t suffer.  The very same year the City began to change how it provided public defense services, the Seattle Times wrote a 3 part series called:  “The Empty Promise of an Equal Defense. It tells the story of how “the system in some counties practically guarantees inadequate legal representation for poor defendants”

The Mayor declined to sign the 2004 Ordinance and sent the City Council a letter saying the requirements in the ordinance were “moot,” and the ordinance would “usurp executive authority” by laying out ground rules for future negotiations about public-defense standards.

Now, fast-forward to August 2007.  In an audit requested by myself and Councilmember McIver and released last week, the City of Seattle Audit Office revealed “significant” findings and made recommendations in 17 of 19 areas, concluding that the Office of Planning and Management (OPM) didn’t adhere to the standards legislated in 2004. In addition, the Audit office recommended some immediate action on some of their findings.

Today’s (Monday, August 13, 2007) passage of Resolution 31008, (passed unanimously) in anticipation of the new contracting period beginning in 2008, focuses the City first on 4 of the Audit Office findings. I want to mention here two of the contracting requirements relating specifically to the law passed 2004 that were not enforced by OPM:

A) Case Load Limits

The case load limit required by Ordinance 121501 was the assignment of no more than 380 cases per attorney per year and, yet the City Auditor determined that OMP did not correct the problem over a two year period when one-third of the defense attorneys exceeded this limit.

B)  An Independent Selection of Public Defense Providers in Accordance with the American Bar Association

The Office of City Auditor determined that according to Ordinance 121501, the selection of the defense counsel should be performed independently of political influence and that a nonpartisan board should oversee the public defense system. Yet, in 2004, the Mayor appointed all the members of the RFP selection committee and included 3 members of his staff on it.

Even before I drafted this resolution, I wrote to the Director of the Office of Planning and Management requesting a delay in the release of their new Request for Proposals for the new 2008 defense contract until the Audit was out and all parties had time to review the audit and determine what action was to be taken.  Yet, the Office of Planning and Management released the RFP saying it was unnecessary to review this yet to be released Audit report before issuing an RFP.

Depending on Mayor’s response to Resolution 31008, we may need to amend Ordinance 121501.  Yet, if the Executive has already ignored the 2004 ordinance will they ignore a subsequent ordinance as well?

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