City Hall

Council Could Restore Funding for Controversial Public Defender

By Erica C. Barnett June 15, 2011

City council member Nick Licata proposed an amendment this morning that could potentially restore some funding to The Defender Association, the city's leftiest public-defense firm representing indigent and low-income defendants in Seattle Municipal Court.

Ordinarily, the city hires three firms to represent indigent defendants---a primary firm, a secondary firm for cases where the first firm has a conflict of interest, and a third firm for cases where both firms have a conflict. This year, however, the city hired just two firms.

The Defender Association---one of three nonprofit firms that currently provides lawyers for indigent defendants in Seattle Municipal Court---lost its contract with the city in a bidding process that resulted in only two firms representing indigent defendants. The Associated Counsel for the Accused will continue to be the main firm providing public defense services, and the Northwest Defender Association will be the secondary firm.

"We are very lucky to have four top-notch non-profit public defense agencies here in King County.  All four provide excellent public defense services – and as a result, it often ends up very close between the agencies in the selection process," says Catherine Cornwall from the city's budget office. "This was true three years ago and it was true again this year."

Of four existing nonprofit public defense firms---TDA, Society of Counsel Representing Accused Persons (SCRAP), ACA, and NDA---TDA is widely viewed as the firm least likely  to accept conditions that waive its clients' rights in exchange for leniency in court.

Back in 2007, after an audit found numerous problems with the city's public-defense contracts, the city expanded its contracting system from two contractors---a primary contractor who provides the majority of indigent-defense services, and a secondary contractor to take on cases in which the primary contractor has a conflict of interest---to three, in which the third firm would provide defense services when both the primary and secondary firms have conflicts.

After the city put the new system in place, the city auditor found that the city and the defense firms had made "significant progress" in implementing its 2007 recommendations and fixing the problems identified three years ago.

However, this year, of the four public defense firms that bid for contracts with the city, none, including The Defender Association, bid to serve as the third "conflict" firm. That's because, last year, the city's central budget office decided that the city no longer needed to fund a full-time attorney to take care of those conflict cases; instead, the office---citing budget concerns---cut that position back to half time. As a result, none of the four public defense firms wanted the gig.

This morning, however, city council member Nick Licata proposed, and the council's public safety committee passed, an amendment restoring the third provider to its previous full-time status and requiring that the city put the position out to bid---a move that could restore the TDA to its previous status as a public defender for indigent clients at the city.
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