When voters approved the More Cops Initiative last year, one of the concerns that was raised was the effect additional officers making more arrests would have on the legal system.
Clark County Public Defender Phil Kohn is feeling the consequences of having more police patrolling the streets. Kohn told Clark County commissioners Tuesday that the number of felony cases handled by his office has increased by 4,000 this year.
“It is such a dramatic increase; it’s incredible,” Kohn said.
Clark County administrators are searching for ways to reduce the caseload in Kohn’s office. They sought recommendations from commissioners after learning the Nevada Supreme Court Indigent Commission is prepared to pass restrictions on caseloads for public defenders.
The Supreme Court commission’s position is that attorneys cannot meet performance standards if they are overburdened with cases.
In 2003, a public defender’s client who sat on death row for years filed a lawsuit against Clark County. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the man’s civil rights were violated because his public defender provided ineffective representation.
The defendant was awarded $5 million.
Kohn, who took over the public defenders office in 2004, said he has worked hard to improve it. He urged commissioners to spend more money on more public defenders rather than contracting out to private lawyers.
He opposed a recommendation to shift all misdemeanor cases to private attorneys. Kohn said his office uses the less serious cases to train less experienced attorneys. Handing them over to private attorneys would do nothing to lift his burden, he said.
“The misdemeanors aren’t what’s killing us; it’s the 400 felony cases (per public defender) that’s taking a toll on my office,” Kohn said.
Kohn also opposed a recommendation to have team leaders in his office take over some cases. The leaders spend most of their time mentoring attorneys and helping with trials, he said.
Commissioners did not pass either recommendation but agreed to the following:
• Transfer more murder and sexual assault cases to private attorneys and increase the contract for adult criminal cases from $3,000 to $6,000 a month. The county would pay private attorneys $100 an hour for time spent in trial to discourage attorneys from simply pushing defendants to take time-saving plea bargains.
• Conduct a case-weighting and time management study to measure the public defenders’ caseloads. The study is expected to cost $200,000.
• Increase the contract for juvenile cases handled by private attorneys from $3,000 to $4,000 a month.
• Issue a request for proposals for a private, experienced criminal defense attorney to oversee all hourly billings.
Assistant Clark County Manager Elizabeth Quillen agreed to launch a study on which is more economical: contracting private attorneys or hiring additional public defenders.
“I realize these recommendations are not palatable,” Quillen said in response to concerns voiced by Kohn. “But we have to do something and come up with some way to meet our constitutional obligations.”