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Kitsap plans to establish public defender office

Kitsap County has received the go-ahead to establish its own public defender’s office, with funding approved to create a single position that will determine the balance between in-house and contracted services.

“We will always have a mixed system,” Kitsap County Clerk Dave Peterson said. “But we would like to know what the best balance will be.”

Peterson said the county spends about $4 million each year on public defender services, for the defense of those who cannot afford to hire their own representation. About 66 lawyers from various local firms are in the system. Peterson said the new PD would try some cases, but would be involved in controlling the work flow between the county and the attorneys.

“They will manage the general oversight of the program,” he said.

Peterson added that the new system will probably not change the cost to the county for public defense, but will increase its efficiency. The full-time position will split its funding between the state and those funds already allocated for public defense.

In Kitsap County, non-union prosecutors earn from $51,000 to $119,000 per year. Any public defender would be paid within that range to guarantee fairness.

“As a prosecutor, you want to have equality,” Deputy Prosecutor Chad Enright said. “You don’t want your opponent to make any mistakes that will cause the decision to be overturned on appeal. It’s not all about winning, you want people to be well represented.”

Port Orchard law firm Crawford, McGilliard, Peterson and Yelish receives the most public defender business and has an eight-member staff handling such cases. Partner Tim Kelly acknowledges the new office could have some impact on his bottom line but he is not expecting the worst.

“Judges are most concerned with having quality lawyers,” Kelly said. “If we create an in-house public defense system, I hope we can maintain that quality.”

The discussion about the local public defender system began in December, after a commissioned report submitted by Tacoma attorney John H. Hill. The report concurred with Kelly’s quality assessment, saying Kitsap County’s “‘contract’ indigent-defense delivery system is not in crisis and produces examples of private sector service to the system that generate an acceptable level of confidence by various components of the Superior, District, and Juvenile court systems. There is no doubt that it has produced providers who enjoy a high level of professional reputation and regard across the state.” However, the report states “There is no unified voice for public defense in Kitsap County and therefore is unable to serve as an essential partner in the development of justice systems.”

The report goes on to suggest the establishment of an ordinance outlining a comprehensive plan for the delivery of indigent defense services. While the new public defender is approved in principle, it must be finalized by the county commissioners. Peterson said the position could be filled as early as July or August.

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