Everett court bolsters its spending on public defenders

EVERETT — It’s calendar confirmation morning at Everett Municipal Court and city prosecutors and public defenders are busy fine-tuning plea deals and scheduling trials over cardboard boxes stuffed with court files.

Defendants pile into the crowded courtroom, among them a young man who showed up late wearing a loose sweatshirt slung over a blue-and-white set of plaid pajamas with a cigarette tucked behind one of his ears.

This is where people who are too poor to hire their own attorneys end up when they face misdemeanor charges in Everett.

If found guilty, these defendants could be sentenced to jail and face fines for crimes such as domestic violence, drug possession or driving while intoxicated.

“You’ve got five charges against you, each carrying up to a year,” said defense attorney Miguel Duran, pleading with his client in the hallway. The man had an arrest warrant issued against him after skipping previous court dates. “You’ve got to wake up to this, you’ve got to take it seriously.”

That kind of personal attention is happening more often these days in Everett Municipal Court.

In three years, Everett has more than tripled its spending on public defenders, going from $360,000 annually in 2005 to more than $1 million in 2007.

The growing budget for indigent defense has allowed the city’s contract public defender, Association of Attorneys for the Accused, to increase its number of lawyers from three to eight and to pare down caseloads.

The new emphasis on public defense isn’t caused by any single case, Everett officials say. Instead, the legal community pushed for cities and counties to provide better defense services, and there’s also concern that the lack of adequate defense could prove costly in many ways.

“There was a growing realization that public defense in Washington was in or was approaching a crisis or critical situation,” said Marc Boman, a partner with Seattle-based law firm Perkins Coie, who co-chaired a panel recommending beefing up public defense throughout the state.

Wrongful convictions, costly reversals and big civil payouts have all been linked to insufficient funding of public defense services, said Joanne Moore, executive director of the Washington State Office of Public Defense, an independent agency of the judicial branch.

“If they’re not doing their job, the case can be lost on appeal on that ground,” she said.

Moore pointed to a series of cases where cities and counties made payouts for failing to provide adequate defense for the accused. None of the cases were in Snohomish County.

One example is when Grant County agreed last year to pay $250,000 to Felipe G. Vargas to settle a lawsuit over being given inadequate defense. Vargas was falsely accused of child molestation and spent more than seven months behind bars. A U.S. District Court jury found that Vargas’ court-appointed attorney in Grant County Superior Court provided little defense for his client. Vargas was also awarded $3 million from his attorney.

Even though it has increased the number of lawyers, the Association of Attorneys for the Accused still has heavy caseloads. Defense attorneys in Everett Municipal Court now handle roughly 650 to 750 cases per year, said Christian Smith, a senior lawyer with the association.

The Washington State Bar Association recommends about 300 misdemeanors per year per attorney, although the guidelines say caseload limits can increase depending on case types. Many of Everett’s cases are simple to handle, such as driving with a suspended license, Smith said.

Another new change in the relationship between the city and the Association of Attorneys for the Accused is how the nonprofit is paid. In the past, the nonprofit received a flat fee for its services. Now, the association is paid $95,833 per month and can receive more or less in compensation depending on volume of cases as well as legal expenses.

That’s an important distinction, said Everett city attorney Jim Iles, whose office oversees prosecution and public defense in the city court system. Fixed-rate public defense contracts can invite abuse and create economic disincentives for public defenders to effectively represent their clients.

The changes make prosecutors work harder to prove their cases, but squaring off with strong advocates is at the heart of the adversarial system, Everett city prosecutor Mike Fisher said.

“As a prosecutor, I want to see people treated fairly,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Everett followed many of the recommendations made by the state bar panel chaired by Boman of Perkins Coie along with retired Washington Supreme Court Justice Robert J. Utter.

“It’s not that we were way behind state standards, but we certainly weren’t a model,” said Smith with the Association of Attorneys for the Accused.

It is still not up to ideal standards, but it has been able to achieve more effective representation, Smith said. Previously public defenders frequently missed arraignments. Now, most criminal defendants who need a court-appointed attorney in municipal court have immediate contact with lawyers, Smith said.

Public defenders now have time to sit down with clients to explain their options and make sure clients know when to appear in court.

Municipal Court Presiding Judge Tim O’Dell said it’s important for public defense and prosecution to be on equal footing, especially in light of recent public defense scandals in Washington state.

“It’s an issue that all courts are dealing with,” he said. “You have to stay on top of it and defend everybody’s rights.”

Reporter David Chircop: 425-339-3429, dchircop@heraldnet.com.

Learn more

In 2004, a Washington State Bar panel issued a report on growing concerns over public defense in the state. To read the report, go to www.wsba.org/lawyers/groups/blueribbonreport.pdf.

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