Bid to reform indigent defense in Nevada stalls

How many cases does the public defender have? The answer to that question has proved to be surprisingly elusive.

A high court commission charged with reforming the state’s indigent defense system has hit several roadblocks in its quest to ensure fair representation of the state’s poorest citizens.

Chief among them is wholesale confusion and even anger over what defines a case. “You have one case with four defendants, that’s one case for the DA and four cases for the public defender,” said former Supreme Court Justice Nancy Becker on behalf of the Clark County district attorney at Monday’s videoconference meeting that included commission members from Las Vegas, Washoe County and Carson City.

“It would be great if we could make (the data) the same, but we can’t do that,” said Federal Public Defender Franny Forsman. “We need to have faith in each other’s numbers.”

Case definition is important from a funding standpoint, which makes it all the more important for not just prosecutors and public defenders to agree, but also courts and police departments.

Multiple cases arriving from a single case also occur when the public defender withdraws due to a conflict and the special public defender is called in. On rare instances, both the public and special public defenders have a conflict and the case is farmed out to private counsel.

At each turn, a new “case” is opened for the defense, but the district attorney still has one case on the books. The Clark County Commissioners, which funds the district attorney and public defender, doesn’t always understand the process and openly questions how different agencies have such disparate statistics when they all deal with the same defendants.

While the commission initially set out to help the state’s public defenders reduce their respective caseloads, there were concerns raised that tweaking the formula for just the public defender would have a negative impact on other data collection agencies, such as the Metropolitan police department, district attorneys and justice courts, all of whom rely on public money to operate.

With little consensus, Justice Michael Cherry advised the subcommittee to go back to the drawing board and hammer out an agreement. He said the 180-day deadline, set to expire in early July, would be extended.

In other Commission on Indigent Defense news:

In another matter that finds prosecutors and defenders on opposite sides – surprise, surprise – uniform jury instructions for every district court in the state will not be approved anytime soon, despite Cherry’s pleadings. “It sure would make our lives easier on the Supreme Court,” he said. The impasse? Past efforts to reform jury instructions have stalled because the two sides have differing opinions on how to word the instructions. Public defenders want law professors and other academics, particularly linguists who can explain complex legal issues in layman’s terms, to create a list. District attorneys want practitioners involved with voting privileges. The complaint? Too many district attorneys on previous commissions tilted the issues too far in their favor. The counter? College professors are also biased, said Becker.

A controversial push to charge indigent defendants for the services of public defenders has not gained widespread support. Instead, it looks like the state might collect a nominal fee on the front end rather than assess a higher fee at sentencing. That fee could be about $20, payable when the defendant completes the public defender application.

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