Clallam judges weigh in on indigent defense debate

PORT ANGELES — Clallam County Superior Court judges have fired back against county commissioners’ efforts to change the model for legal defense provided for low-income defendants in District Court.

Judges Erik Rohrer, Christopher Melly and Brian Coughenour wrote a letter to the commissioners Wednesday arguing the county should follow the recommendation of a committee that met last year and keep the current system in place.

“Part of our concern about any changes to the status quo is based on our memory of how the system worked before we had the current system of public defense,” they wrote.

“In our view, there were strong reasons for changing the old system to what we currently have — changing back to the way it was previously done is literally a step backward.”

They urged the commissioners to move “slowly and deliberately” and include as many stakeholders as possible in the discussion.

In an effort to save money, Commissioners Randy Johnson and Bill Peach instructed Clallam County Administrator Jim Jones to draft a contract for an indigent defense coordinator who would manage contracts with attorneys who could be paid on a per-case basis.

Jones said Thursday that in researching how other counties address indigent defense, he discovered the county could save roughly $150,000 to $200,000 by changing how charges are filed in District Court — a process that can change regardless of who provides defense services.

Currently law enforcement officers file charges directly with district court and typically about 35 percent of the 1,600 cases annually are dismissed, Jones said.

Jones said if the county requires prosecutors to review charges before they were filed, about 35 percent of cases would never be charged, meaning a public defender wouldn’t be needed in those cases.

Prosecuting Attorney Mark Nichols said it has been discussed for years whether the county should change how charges are filed.

He also said that he has instructed his staff not to make any recommendations to commissioners on how to address indigent defense and that he has kept himself “at arm’s length” from the issue.

Nichols said his office can only provide legal advise, not recommendations.

The plan for a public defense coordinator 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.

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. Commissioners rejected the proposal due to escalating costs, Jones said.

Gasnick said if the county pursues changing how charges are filed in district court, he could submit a new bid.

“If we were asked to submit a bid based on 35 percent fewer cases in district court, we would come in with a bid of a reduced amount,” he said. “The easiest way to reduce cost is to charge fewer cases.”

Jones said he has asked Gasnick to come see him to discuss how to reduce the contract, but the two haven’t discussed how changing the filing of charges would influence Gasnick’s bid.

“I have been begging him to come see me,” Jones said. “I wanted to negotiate with him and bring back a way to save money and be done with this last May.”

Jones said Gasnick met individually with commissioners over the summer and “never changed anything on what he was willing to do.”

Some have criticized the idea of paying defense attorneys per case or based on the outcome of the case, arguing there could be financial incentive to plead guilty.

Jones said he refuses to believe in the “progressive horribles,” that have been discussed and finds them “insulting to the profession.”

“The great majority of attorneys are in it for the shining light of justice,” Jones said. “They are doing the best they can.”

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

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