The Nevada Supreme Court Indigent Defense Commission has completed a draft report that recommends major and potentially expensive fixes to public defender systems across the state.
"The way we, as a society, deal with the indigent in our court system is a benchmark of our commitment to justice," Supreme Court Justice Michael Cherry, the head of the commission, wrote in the 76-page report.
To help ensure defendants get adequate representation, the commission has endorsed capping the number of cases assigned to public defenders and creating a set of performance rules for the attorneys.
After a final meeting later this year, the commission’s recommendations will go to the full Supreme Court for possible adoption.
The case limits are intended to bring public defender systems statewide in compliance with American Bar Association guidelines. Currently, most public defenders in the state have caseloads that far exceed those standards, which reduces the amount of time the lawyers can spend on any given case.
A vast majority of defendants in criminal proceedings are declared indigent, and the commission has also discussed improving the system for determining whether a defendant can afford an attorney.
The panel has proposed limiting public defenders to a maximum of 192 felony cases per year. Caps would also be put on capital, juvenile delinquency, misdemeanor, and other types of cases.
Attorneys with Clark County Public Defender Phil Kohn’s office currently have felony caseloads nearing 400.
Public defenders in Nevada’s rural counties and Clark County’s part-time conflict defenders also are coping with growing caseloads
Kohn said his agency’s felony caseload is increasing by 200 cases per month, in large part because of an increase in city police officers made possible by a county sales tax increase in 2005.
In a letter to Cherry, representatives from the national headquarters of the NAACP and ACLU strongly urged the state to adopt "realistic caseload limits."
The commission estimates it could cost Clark County and the entire rest of the state each about $15 million to meet those standards. Most of the expense here would stem from the need for more attorneys in Kohn’s office.
North Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Stephen Dahl told the commission on Wednesday that public defenders are feeling the brunt of more arrests and a district attorney’s office that overcharges cases.
As examples, Dahl cited local prosecutors’ broad interpretation of what constitutes burglary and kidnapping.
"We’ve got out-of-control law enforcement and prosecutors," Dahl said. "If we’ve got money for that, we’ve got money for caseload limits."
Assistant County Manager Liz Quillin, co-author of a three-page rebuttal to the commission’s recommendations, argued the cost of caseload standards is too high.
She said the county has a "myriad of financial burdens," including deficits at the University Medical Center, that make it difficult to pay for more public defenders.
"Ironically, if Clark County is mandated to adhere to proposed caseload standards for indigent defense, the county’s ability to provide indigent health care may be compromised," Quillin wrote.
A former public defender, Quillin announced on Wednesday she is leaving her job with the county at the end of the month to work for Henderson City Attorney Shauna Hughes.
David Carroll, a commission member and research director for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association in Washington, D.C., said he sympathized with the financial plight of Clark County and other counties. But Carroll said it’s not good enough to choose to selectively uphold the Constitution only when it can be done cheaply.
"I think it’s a perfect argument for why you need a state (indigent defense) system," he said. "When you decentralize it in 16 counties, you’re never going to get beyond the money issue."
The Supreme Court formed the indigent defense panel after a Review-Journal series in March detailed problems with Clark County’s system of assigning private lawyers to defendants who cannot be represented by Kohn’s office because of a conflict of interest.
The so-called contract attorney system was overhauled in June and is set to be relaunched with improved oversight later this year.
Commission members have said they hope eventually to largely phase out the contract system.
District Judge Stewart Bell, who sits on the commission, said the proposed and enacted changes to public defender systems in the state are temporary solutions.
"We have to move ahead with the understanding that a move in the right direction is not the endgame move," Bell said at Wednesday’s meeting. "We can’t go on the way we are."
Contact reporter Alan Maimon at email@example.com or (702) 383-0404.Conflicted Justice