Clallam County commissioners are considering restructuring public defense for low-income defendants in an effort to save money. (Jesse Major/Peninsula Daily News)​

Indigent defense changes: Clallam County commisioners aim to save money

PORT ANGELES — In an effort to save money, two Clallam County commissioners are working to restructure public defense for low-income defendants in district court, despite a recommendation from an ad-hoc committee of experts to keep things as they are.

Commissioners Bill Peach and Randy Johnson instructed Clallam County Administrator Jim Jones on Tuesday to draft a contract that would appoint Larry Freedman, currently a pro-tem judge in Clallam County District Court 1, as an indigent defense coordinator who would manage contracts with attorneys who volunteer to provide counsel for defendants.

“I’m trying to figure out what we did for months in the committee you appointed,” Christopher Shea, a former public defender and prosecutor told Peach and Johnson.

“We worked; we did our job; and now you are saying ‘well, we don’t like that.’

“We just wasted our time and that causes concern.”

The committee that met for several months last year told the county to continue with the current system for public defense.

The committee determined that services in district and superior court should not be split into two separate entities and said the county should not contract with private lawyers for indigent defense because “there is not a critical mass of local lawyers to fill the need,” according to a memo issued Nov. 28, 2016.

The proposed plan would scrap the current structure for public defense, which has been provided by the nonprofit Clallam Public Defender for district and superior court for 40 years.

The Clallam Public Defender was the only contractor to submit a bid to county commissioners in May, and has been working in recent years on a series of one-year contract extensions frequently approved late in the budget cycle.

Clallam Public Defender Director Harry Gasnick proposed a contract that would pay his firm $1.12 million — or 87 percent of what deputy prosecuting attorneys earn if a higher amount — plus $165,000 for operational expenses in 2018.

In a letter delivered to commissioners Monday, Gasnick called the plans to create an indigent defense coordinator “ill conceived.”

“The inherent deficiencies and ethical shortcomings of the proposed implementation … elevate[s] these concerns,” Gasnick wrote.

“Simply from a risk management perspective, we strongly urge the County to consider consulting with independent attorneys, including an ethicist and person conversant with the special requirements of public defense in Washington.”

Commissioner Mark Ozias, the lone commissioner against the proposal, said the recommendation underscores his concern for the proposal.

“Providing public defense is not something we can think of just from a bottom line perspective,” Ozias said during a Sept. 25 work session “This is a pretty fundamental component of our justice system.”

Jones said that after talking to District Court Judge Rick Porter and Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols, it was determined the change could save $150,000 to $200,000 annually.

The public defense coordinator would meet with district court judges at least twice a year to review their performance, according to a draft job description.

All commissioners said they were impressed with the level of services Gasnick has provided for the county and for defendants, but Peach said Sept. 25 those services are more than what is needed.

“One of the things I see personally as a significant difference … is that Harry feels bound to provide the absolute best service possible,” Peach said. “I don’t see anything in our constitution that guarantees what Harry is proposing — the best possible service to the public defender.”

Johnson said among his concerns is the lack of a plan for Superior Court, but urged Jones to pursue the contract.

Clallam Public Defenders has not offered to cover indigent defense services in Superior Court.

Though the change is an effort to save money, Craig Ritchie, a former Sequim city attorney and county prosecuting attorney who served on the committee said Monday it would cost more.

Jones sent an email to the Clallam County Bar Association earlier this month asking for “ideas about how to best set up such a model,” and if anyone was interested in being the public defense coordinator. Jones told commissioners Tuesday that four people said they were interested in the position, but only Freedman committed to the position.

Freedman said Tuesday he could take the job, but he had thought commissioners had already decided to create the position. No formal action has been taken.

Defense Attorney Karen Unger told the commissioners the plan isn’t feasible and that the plan as proposed is unethical and irresponsible.

There was discussion about paying defense attorneys per case and possibly having different rates based on if a case finished quickly or went to trial.

“I don’t know how much you know about the United States Constitution and the Washington State Constitution, but I’m listening to you talking about people pleading guilty when meeting with their lawyer for the first time,” Unger said. “

“You’re going to have to spend money to provide the service you’re expected to do as county commissioners,” she said. “People that live in this community have a right to an attorney and you can’t get around it.”

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