The Washington State Association of Counties, the collective voice of Washington’s counties for over one hundred years.

2018 Legislative Session: Public Defense - WSAC

Increased Funding for Trial Court Public Defense

The state’s financial contribution to the constitutional right for effective and adequate legal representation can only be described as wholly inadequate. Despite the legislature’s continued recognition of the state’s obligation that “effective legal representation must be provided for indigent persons…consistent with the constitutional requirements of fairness, equal protection, and due process,” our state has failed to make progress toward funding this obligation. See RCW 10.101.005.

It is important for the legislature to understand that the absence of state revenue, for such an obvious state mandate delegated to counties, leaves counties with no other option than to cut from other public health and safety services provided to our shared communities. Please support adequate state funding for public defense.

“Given the existing low level of state funding and the increased costs identified to date, the State should increase the funding levels to cities and counties for public defense.”

– House Judiciary Workgroup on Misdemeanor Public Defense Costs in Washington State, 2014


The number of states
that provide over
50% of funding
for public defense


Washington State’s
contribution of the
total amount spent for
trial court public defense


Counties need an additional
$15 million per fiscal year

Counties desperately need the state to back up its stated commitment for the constitutional right to effective legal representation with real money. Counties cannot continue to fund trail court public defense alone. In order to continue effective access to justice, the legislature must fund the full cost of trial court public defense – an additional $306 million per biennium.

Current Funding Structure:

  • Public Defense is mandated by the US Supreme Court and carried out by counties on behalf of the state.
  • Counties spent $153 million in 2016
  • Only reimbursed 4% of those costs
  • Costs increased by 12.5% in 2016
  • State provided $6.2 million in 2016 to counties
  • Possible issue for litigation

Growing Requirements of Counties:

  • The legislature and the Supreme Court have required counties to adopt new caseload standards for public defenders
  • Counties have worked hard to take incremental steps to reach staffing levels consistent with the new standards, but costs have skyrocketed
  • Nationally there are 23 states that fully fund public defense and another 8 states that fund more than 50%.