Big changes for contract defenders

About one in every seven indigent criminal defendants can’t be represented by the Clark County public defender’s office because of a conflict of interest, usually because a co-defendant is cooperating with prosecutors. These defendants are represented by private, contract attorneys, selected by the court and paid by taxpayers.

In March, a Review-Journal investigation found Clark County’s system of selecting and paying these contract attorneys violated American Bar Association guidelines and was plagued by a lack of oversight that resulted in dubious outcomes for defendants and wasted county funds.

Many lawyers were awarded contracts without submitting their qualifications, which resulted in inexperienced attorneys handling murder and sexual assault cases. One attorney billed the county for more than 24 hours of work on a single day — and he did that at least 22 times in the first half of 2006. And because most lawyers were paid a flat $3,000 per month to handle an unlimited number of cases, they had an incentive to strike plea bargains — fair or not — for many clients.

Nevada Supreme Court Justice Michael Cherry said the investigative series was “a black eye” for the criminal defense system.

This week, Clark County judges approved broad changes to the deeply flawed system with the hope of better meeting the state’s constitutional obligations and saving the public money.

Among the modifications:

–A panel of court officers will review attorney qualifications, hire them and assign them to judges at random. Previously, judges hand-picked the defenders who appeared before them.

–The monthly stipend for contract attorneys will double to $6,000, and lawyers who handle defendants facing a possible life sentence will get a limited number of hourly cases.

–The county will conduct random and targeted audits of court-appointed work.

The county’s District Court judges should be applauded for taking such quick action to find a short-term solution for an unacceptable situation. Indigent criminal defendants have a right to competent, dedicated representation, and taxpayers deserve accountability for footing the bill. These fixes will help satisfy both.


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