EVERETT — Snohomish County’s public defense costs soared this year, another possible symptom of what elected leaders have labeled an “opioid epidemic.”
The county’s Office of Public Defense finished 2017 a half-million dollars in the hole. An increase in felonies created the need to pay more defense attorneys for their time. Expert-witness costs also went up.
The attorney who runs the office attributed much of the rise to drug-related crime.
“The opioid crisis continues to create an increase in cases that are prosecuted,” Sara Bhagat told the County Council. “Our office doesn’t drive the workload; our workload comes from arrests in the community.”
The rising expense for indigent defense isn’t isolated to this county. It’s a burden throughout Washington. The state Association of Counties hopes to lobby the state next year to pay a greater share. The state covers less than 5 percent of public defense cost, one of the lowest in the nation.
The council earlier this month granted Bhagat’s request for more money. It passed 5-0.
The office’s 2017 budget was about $10.5 million, before the increase. It has crept up more than $2 million since 2015.
Bhagat’s office doesn’t directly employ or supervise defense attorneys. It manages a contract with the nonprofit Public Defender Association, which performs those functions. In some cases, the Office of Public Defense hires independent attorneys to avoid possible conflicts of interest. The office is responsible for screening defendants to see whether they lack the means to pay for their own legal defense.
This year’s cost increase came as no surprise. The ballooning budget has been a topic of conversation for months. A similar request also was granted last year, for $250,000.
Prosecutors have no legal limit on the number of cases they can handle, but defense attorneys do. The standards are set by the Washington State Bar Association and the state Supreme Court. The maximum varies depending on the type of charge. Each defense attorney can handle up to 150 felony cases, 250 juvenile cases or 400 misdemeanor cases per year, Bhagat said.
Pending aggravated murder cases have added to the workload. So have changes at the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office, including four new deputy prosecuting attorneys hired in 2016.
“This allows them more prosecutors for filing cases, which in turn creates more filings, and more need for indigent defense funding to handle that increase in filings,” Bhagat said.
County prosecutors now have the resources to charge some drug offenses and other nonviolent cases as felonies, rather than misdemeanors, as was the case in the recent past. Changes in state law open the door to more felonies for impaired driving and identity theft targeting the elderly. A grant is helping Snohomish County go after vehicular assault cases.
While all of that gives the courts more work, a diversion program that started this year for mentally ill people accused of low-level crimes could ease some of the pressure.