Compromise Reached on Public Defense Legislation
Late last week, stakeholders reached a tentative compromise on legislation establishing a new public defense delivery model effective October 1, 2024. Under the framework, counties will be relieved of all obligations to provide public defense. Those counties that currently contract for public defense, will continue to have contract public defenders to serve their respective counties (the contract will be with the state rather than the county). The compromise also ensures that a contract public defender (or defenders) will be assigned to each county. This language was added to ensure continuity of public defense in contract counties.
For institutional counties, public defense will be provided via a regional judicial district public defense model. Within each judicial district, the magistrate commission will select a chief district public defender who will oversee public defense within the judicial district. Once hired, the position will become a “for cause” position to ensure independence. Judicial district public defenders will be authorized to hire attorneys, contract with attorneys, hire administrative and support staff, and have general supervision of public defender services within the judicial district. Judicial district public defenders will also coordinate budget and policy matters with a newly created state public defender who will have administrative oversight of public defense in Idaho. The state public defender will be appointed by the governor from a list of names recommended by a special panel appointed by the governor.
Under the proposal, the state will have two years to develop a facility transition plan to procure office space for institutional public defenders. Once developed, the state will have up to three years to transition all public defenders out of county space. The framework also requires the state to reimburse counties during the transition period for any office expenses incurred by public defenders, including technology, office furnishings, equipment, software, supplies, and subscriptions.
The compromise language is being drafted by legislative staff and should be released later this week. Once released, the proposal will be scheduled for a hearing in the House Judiciary and Rules Committee. The compromise is the culmination of over a decade of work. I want to specifically thank former Boundary County Commissioner Dan Dinning, Nez Perce County Commissioner Doug Zenner, Ada County Commissioner Rod Beck, Twin Falls County Commissioner Don Hall, Bingham County Commissioner Mark Bair, and Madison County Commissioner Brent Mendenhall for their work over the summer and into the fall on this issue.