Clallam Public Defender offers new contract with county

PORT ANGELES — The Clallam Public Defender office has offered to negotiate a contract with the county on a per-case basis, as county commissioners seek to cut the cost of providing defense for low-income defendants in District Court.

Clallam Public Defender sent a letter to the county Monday amid discussions of hiring an indigent defense coordinator in District Court.

“[I]t appears that there may have been a perceived inability or unwillingness on the part of CPD to enter an indigent defense agreement that is based upon ‘by the case’ compensation,” the letter from Director Harry Gasnick and board Chair David Johnson says.

“CPD remains open to any discussion that meaningfully addresses the possibility of significant reductions in anticipated District Court caseloads.”

Gasnick said all conversations within the past 10 years about public defense contracts have been tied to the idea of reaching parity in compensation with the county Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, but the county is stepping away from that idea.

Gasnick said he hopes to meet with County Administrator Jim Jones to discuss a potential contract, though a meeting was not scheduled as of Tuesday.

Jones told county commissioners Monday he had crunched numbers to see how restructuring public defense in District Court would work.

Based on his math, he said the county stands to save $138,762 per year by hiring pro-tem judge Larry Freedman as an indigent defense coordinator who would manage contracts with private attorneys. No contract had been signed as of Tuesday.

Attorneys have raised concerns that there are too few attorneys in Clallam County who would be willing to take on extra criminal cases, but Jones told commissioners that 12 are interested, according to Freedman.

Jones said Freedman would provide names and qualifications of the attorneys, who asked to remain anonymous, once the county has signed a contract with him. Attorneys have told Freedman they want to remain anonymous until, or unless, he is hired.

That is based on paying attorneys $275 per case for the estimated 1,600 cases attorneys are appointed to annually in District Court.

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Brian Wendt warned commissioners that efforts to reduce costs associated with indigent defense don’t usually end well for counties.

“While the [Prosecuting Attorney’s Office] is sympathetic to concern regarding costs of the criminal justice system, it would remind the [Board of County Commissioners] that efforts to cap/truncate expenditures related to the provision of indigent defense rarely result in good outcomes for local governments,” he wrote in an email. “In other words, a blind focus on savings is fraught with peril.”

He wrote that it may be prudent for commissioners to negotiate a three- to five-year deal with Clallam Public Defenderthat is consistent with a recommendation last year from a committee the commissioners created.

“This would allow [commissioners] additional time to explore/study the legality and feasibility of a public defense coordinator model … in Clallam County,” Wendt wrote.

Commissioner Bill Peach said Monday his top goal was to save taxpayer dollars.

“That’s the real agenda here,” he said.

He said he is very interested in the price Gasnick is willing to negotiate and that he hopes Gasnick will provide separate costs for providing services in Superior and District courts.

“I don’t want us to have to feel like we’re being coerced,” he said.

The plan for an indigent defense coordinator does not address who would be providing defense services in Superior Court. That is still up in the air.

Jones said he assumes Clallam Public Defender would put in a bid for just Superior Court if the county moves forward with an indigent defense coordinator, but Gasnick has not told the county he would.

Jones said the nonprofit Clallam Public Defender office would fold if it didn’t put in the bid.

Gasnick told the Peninsula Daily News he wasn’t authorized to say whether Clallam Public Defender would put in a bid for just Superior Court.

“I will … reinforce that we still don’t know what will happen with Superior Court because that conversation hasn’t happened,” Commissioner Mark Ozias said.

“I understand why Jim has made the assumption he has, but there’s no conversation or affirmation from Clallam Public Defender that they would provide that service.”

Ozias has said he is against making such a major change to how public defense is provided with such little time. The contract with Clallam Public Defender is up at the end of the year.

Commissioner Randy Johnson said he needed more information before he could make a decision. As of the work session Monday, he hadn’t yet reviewed all the information available. He did not answer phone calls requesting comment Tuesday.

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Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at jmajor@peninsula dailynews.com.

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