A system for assigning private attorneys to poor defendants in Las Vegas’s Clark County suffers from a lack of oversight that yields uneven justice and questionable government spending, a Las Vegas Review-Journal investigation found. In response to the six-month examination, court officials formed a committee to examine how to fix the “contract attorney” system, known as the track or conflict system. Judges hire private attorneys to handle misdemeanor and felony cases that the county public defender’s office cannot because of some conflict of interest. Judges routinely give some lucrative cases regular campaign contributors.
The newspaper calls the system “justice on the cheap,” but says some contract attorneys live richly by it, in part because officials have paid scant attention to how money is spent. The arrangement cost about $4 million in 2006 and is budgeted for $5 million this year. Some contract attorneys spent a vastly disproportionate amount of time on felony cases that pay hourly, leaving little time for the many other cases they have been assigned. Defense attorneys with little trial experience were frequently assigned to defend people accused of serious felonies, including murder and sexual assault. Some contract attorneys had limited contact with defendants before trial or plea bargain. A review of 71 cases in which defendants got at least three years in prison showed that 16 received no jail visits from their attorneys.