Washington State’s system of public defense frequently fails indigent defendants, including some who have been “poorly served, even victimized, by those entrusted with protecting their civil rights,” says a a Washington State Bar Association panel. The Seattle Times reprots that the panel, whose 17 members include judges from the Washington Supreme Court, calls for laws or court rules to address problems, including a lack of enforceable standards for public-defense lawyers, inadequate funding, and the proliferation of fixed-fee public-defense contracts that invite abuse.
“Some individuals and private firms profit from public-defense contracts while providing minimal or substandard representation to their clients, and many in positions to know of these failures look away as defendants’ constitutional rights to effective assistance of counsel are denied,” the panel’s report says.
“Public trust and confidence in Washington’s judges and court system suffer when the public perceives that individuals charged with crimes are treated unfairly,” the report says.
The Times published a series last month on the chronic failures of Washington’s public-defense system, revealing such shortcomings as staggering caseloads that make it all but impossible for many defense attorneys to do their job effectively. The workload of one defense attorney was 6½ times what bar groups recommend. A Grant County attorney, whom the Washington Supreme Court has ordered disbarred, handled 413 felony cases last year – nearly triple the 150 recommended by the state bar. “I think there are many Grant Counties out there,” said panel member Jon Ostlund, head of the Whatcom County Public Defender’s Office.