LS Attorney Defense attorney crisis ‘band-aid’ is failing. Tri-Cities pleaded for WA state to help

Defense attorney crisis ‘band-aid’ is failing. Tri-Cities pleaded for WA state to help

A West Richland man was back in Franklin County jail two days after being released by a judge because he didn’t have an attorney.

Kurt Painter, 28, was arrested Thursday shortly after 12:30 pm on suspicion of residential burglary after he was found in a Pasco garage trying to break into a car.

Painter was one of the first people to have his bail cut because of the shortage of attorneys to handle public defense in the county. Officials already announced a Friday news conference to address the need for help before Painter was arrested again.

The issues around the lack of defense attorneys could get a lot worse, before it gets better, Franklin County Office of Public Defense Manager Larry Zeigler said during the Friday news conference.

Larry Ziegler

Larry Ziegler

“I’m not going to stand here and tell everybody that I’ve got all the answers or that there is any panacea,” he said. “It’s taken us years to get to this point and it’s going to take us years to get out of it. It’s going to be an incremental process.”

Franklin and Benton county officials were joined by a state representative and senators in an attempt to put pressure on the state to step up and help fix the problem.

Franklin County is looking for at least two more attorneys to handle felony cases to ease a backlog of more than 75 cases waiting for an attorney to be assigned.

In Benton County, they are looking to hire a new head of public defense to lead recruitment efforts for attorneys. While the problems aren’t as bad there, they still have a backlog of 50 cases waiting for an attorney to be assigned.

Mon. Matt Boehnke, R-Kennewick, said discussions between the three Tri-City area senators who were starting.

“It has a lot more firepower when you’re going into the governor’s office with this,” he said. “We’re gong to reach out to the majority party as well… We don’t have anything now, but maybe early next week.”

Confluence of issues

The shortage of defense attorneys is not unique to the Tri-Cities.

A combination of factors have compounded over the years to create the shortage. A combination of increasing retirements and fewer law school graduates has meant a drop of people going into public defense.

State and county leaders representing Franklin and Benton Counties share the podium and microphone Friday morning at the Franklin County Courthouse for a news conference to discuss the broken public defense system in Washington state.  From left: Franklin Deputy Prosecutor Daniel Stovern, Larry Ziegler Franklin County Office of Public Defense Manager, Sen.  Matt Boehnke R-Kennewick, Benton Prosecutor Eric Eisinger, Benton County Commissioner Mike Alvarez, Sen.  Nikki Torres R-Pasco and Franklin County Commissioner Clint Didier.

State and county leaders representing Franklin and Benton Counties share the podium and microphone Friday morning at the Franklin County Courthouse for a news conference to discuss the broken public defense system in Washington state. From left: Franklin Deputy Prosecutor Daniel Stovern, Larry Ziegler Franklin County Office of Public Defense Manager, Sen. Matt Boehnke R-Kennewick, Benton Prosecutor Eric Eisinger, Benton County Commissioner Mike Alvarez, Sen. Nikki Torres R-Pasco and Franklin County Commissioner Clint Didier.

And many recent graduates don’t want to go into lower paying county jobs because their college debts are so high, according to the state Office of Public Defense.

The lack of attorneys has been exacerbated by rules set by the state Supreme Court that limit who can take what cases and how many can be handled at once.

Compounding the problem is a huge backlog of trials because the COVID pandemic put many cases on hold for a couple of years.

A suspect is constitutionally entitled to a trial within two months of arrangement on formal charges if the suspect is in jail and hasn’t agreed to a delay.

Or a trial must begin within three months if the person is out of custody.

The state and federal constitutions guarantee that anyone accused of a crime is entitled to an attorney if they can’t afford one.

With the lack of attorneys, the Franklin County Office of Public Defense has been focusing on assigning attorneys to people in jail who are accused of violent crime.

In Painter’s case, he was released from his bail on charges of having a stolen car to buy time, so the charges didn’t need to be dropped or a private attorney appointed.

Benton County has shifted $1 million in funding to pay for a series of raises for public defenders, and Franklin County is looking at using $300,000 to pay for new attorneys and to keep the ones they have.

Benton County Prosecutor Eric Eisinger spoke during the news conference discussing the crumbling Washington state public defense system.

Benton County Prosecutor Eric Eisinger spoke during the news conference discussing the crumbling Washington state public defense system.

But officials called these solutions band-aids to the larger problem of a mandate handed down to them by the state without any funding behind it.

“The solution to this problem is going to have to be found at the state level,” Zeigler said. “I don’t think the counties and cities, more than likely, have enough money to cover what’s going to be entailed here.”

This problem has been brewing for decades. Zeigler pointed to a seminar held 25 years ago shortly after the state Office of Public Defense was formed.

At the seminar, the then director of the office promised public defenders would have a uniform public defense system in the state with the support they need.

“Well, it never happened,” Zeigler said. “It was too easy to do band-aids with a contract system and it worked for a while, but I think we’ve worked ourselves into a corner.”

state issue

The other Franklin and Benton county officials also laid the blame on state requirements that were not being addressed.

Franklin County deputy prosecutor Daniel Stovern speaks during a news conference discussing the crumbling Washington state public defense system.

Franklin County deputy prosecutor Daniel Stovern speaks during a news conference discussing the crumbling Washington state public defense system.

Franklin Deputy Prosecutor Daniel Stovern worked as a public defender for nine years before moving to the prosecutor’s office. He urged anyone with a law degree to apply for positions.

“It’s an incredibly gratifying career,” he said. “This funding being transferred, … it’s a band-aid that will not continue to hold forever. So we asked for assistance from the state, from the governor’s office, Legislature to do something to both standardize and help fund public defense.”

Benton County Prosecutor Eric Eisinger called it the most pressing public safety issue facing the area.

He’s optimistic the county will be able to bring in a public defense manager to help with recruitment, but it’s going to take a community and statewide effort to solve the larger issues.

Benton County Commissioner Michael Alvarez said the commissioners understood the importance of issues. He pointed to the backlog of cases caused during the court shutdown during COVID-19.

He asked for the state legislators and the governor’s office to look at the issue and help the counties.

“We’ve done the financial things, what we can go ahead and do, but … the funding isn’t guaranteed from year to year,” he said. “We’re going to need help from the state. … This isn’t just a Franklin County or Benton County issue. This is affecting all 39 counties within the state.”