The right to counsel is a federal constitutional mandate that requires the states to provide defense attorneys to criminal defendants who cannot afford lawyers themselves. In Washington State, public defense services are administered and largely funded by county and city governments. On an annual basis, counties contribute approximately $160 million to trial court public defense services; the state contributes approximately $6 million. In fact, since 2008, county expenditures for public defense costs have increased by more than 50%.

What causes costs to increase?

  • The State adopted and implemented the Standards for Indigent Defense, which established caseload limits for attorneys.
  • Case law changes – decisions made by the courts.
  • Population and inflation.

Decisions to look out for

  • In April 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington filed Davison v. State of Washington, a class action lawsuit in Thurston County Superior Court filed against the state Office of Public Defense (OPD), contending that Grays Harbor County systemically failed to provide constitutionally adequate public defense for juveniles and that the State and OPD had a duty to act when they were aware of the failure.
  • The court, in December 2018, denied the State’s summary judgment motion holding that the State cannot delegate its ultimate constitutional obligation and that the applicable standard in this type of case is that of a knowing systemic violation.
  • The Supreme Court heard arguments for discretionary review in late 2019 for which a decision is expected sometime in 2020.

What has WSAC asked for, and what does it want going forward?

  • During the 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 legislative sessions, WSAC asked the Legislature to fully fund trial court public defense services, to no avail, leaving counties with the brunt of this multimillion-dollar financial responsibility.
    • Counties struggle to continue to pay for other important services when they have to spend an average of 75% of county budgets on criminal justice.
    • However, counties are unable to raise additional revenue when the property tax is capped at 1%.
  • In the upcoming 2020 legislative session, WSAC continues to ask the Legislature to fully fund trial court public defense services.
  • In the alternative, WSAC requests that the State assume all administrative and fiscal responsibility for public defense, taking local government out of the equation entirely.  WSAC has introduced HB 2420 for the 2020 legislative session to address this ongoing issue.