[Vision2020] The Nation's Public Defender Crisis: Idaho Makes Progress on Standards and Funding

Rose Huskey rosejhuskey at gmail.com
Fri Apr 1 14:56:10 PDT 2016

Thank you so much for writing about this issue, Nick.  We are fortunate to have a history of committed and able public defenders in this county.  Sadly, this is not uniformly the case throughout Idaho.  The fact remains, however distasteful it may appear to many of Idaho legislators, that is a constitutional issue.  Regardless of the nature of the crimes (and yes, they may be grievously repugnant) the accused must receive a vigorous defense.  I am proud and grateful to those attorneys who take this responsibility seriously; they are indeed the heroes and heroines of our legal community.  I would also like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the very fine service provided by the State Appellate Public Defenders office led by Sara Thomas.  The office handles the majority of criminal appeals in the state with dedication, great skill, and legal acumen.  (Full disclosure: it is a position formerly held by my daughter Molly – and it is the case that I am proud beyond measure that she chose to frame her legal career around those with the greatest needs, and often the least resources.) 

Rose Huskey

I also want to mention the other side of the courtroom;  our very fine prosecutor, Bill Thompson, and his excellent staff.  For the law to work it is important to have both skillful defense and prosecuting attorneys.  We are extraordinarily fortune have Bill and his staff in Latah County.  So, thank you Bill, Mia, the staff attorneys and administrative staff.  You are terrific.


From: vision2020-bounces at moscow.com [mailto:vision2020-bounces at moscow.com] On Behalf Of Nicholas Gier
Sent: Friday, April 1, 2016 12:14 PM
To: vision2020
Subject: [Vision2020] The Nation's Public Defender Crisis: Idaho Makes Progress on Standards and Funding




For those who do not take the Daily News below is my biweekly column. It also appeared in the Sandpoint Reader and the Los Cabos Daily News.  It may appear soon in the Idaho State Journal in Pocatello.


I'm grateful to our very own Sunil Ramalingam who led me to the best contacts for this column.


Happy Spring (there are goslings in the new UI Arboretum!),





The Nation’s Public Defender Crisis



            For almost a century the American Civil Liberties Union has been in the forefront in protecting the people’s constitutional rights. For this column I will focus on the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees full due process to criminal defendants and their right to legal counsel.


            In the 1963 case Gideon vs. Wainwright Supreme Court rendered a unanimous decision clarifying the right to counsel.  Justice Hugo Black wrote that “reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person hauled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.” 


            The ACLU has filed suits in Connecticut, Michigan, New York, Washington, Idaho, California, and most recently in Louisiana, arguing that these states have failed to provide adequate counsel for their indigent defendants. 


On June 17, 2015, in its first action against an entire state, the ACLU sued Idaho because its public defenders are “under resourced, overburdened, and often overworked.” In addition to citing the lack of enough investigators and expert witnesses, the ACLU suit also states that “our plaintiffs have had to go before a judge for bail hearings, and even to enter pleas of guilty and be sentenced, without a lawyer present.” Many of them sit in jail because they cannot afford bail.


In July 2015 the ACLU filed yet another suit against Fresno County, where an under staffed public defender office serves 25,000 clients. According to an ACLU news release, plaintiff Peter Yepez “did not see a public defender until he had spent almost a month in jail. He had nine different public defenders between his arraignment and sentencing, some of whom told him they did not have time to work on his case and advised him to plead guilty despite strong evidence that he was innocent.”

On January 14 of this year the ACLU sued the City of New Orleans for severe deficiencies it its Public Defenders Office, one financed primarily by the fines that many of its poor clients have to pay.  Because of the crisis, 60 defendants sit in jail without legal representation, and the state-wide waiting list has grown to 2,300. In Louisiana and California a great majority of these defendants are people of color.

There used to be ten public defenders in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, but Natasha George is now the only one. District Court Judge Jerome Winsberg despairs: “Things were not good before, but they are in a terrible place now.” The average public defender caseload used to be twice that of national standards, but it is now threefold.


Returning now to Idaho, the Legislature passed two bills this session.  One will hold the counties to higher standards for indigent legal representation, and it will allow the Public Defense Commission to take over the programs of any county that doesn’t meet them.

The second bill allocates $5.4 million for the Commission, which heretofore had no funding at all. It provides $4.3 million for grants to counties that meet the new standards. The balance of the funds will go to extraordinary litigation, and there is $550,000 to encourage small counties to merge their services.   


The bills have had the support of the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the ACLU’s Kathy Griesmyer announced that her organization was grateful for the new funding. However, she added: “We will be back here advocating for additional dollars as well as reminding folks that this is an incremental step in addressing deficiencies in the public defense system.”

Ian Thomson, former Executive Director of the Public Defense Commission, is less sanguine: “I would be encouraged if this were a first step towards meeting the challenge of our public defense problems, but I fear that this may be the last step.”

Nick Gier of Moscow taught philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years.

Image removed by sender.




A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in. 

-Greek proverb

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self- imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! ‘Have courage to use your own understand-ing!—that is the motto of enlightenment.

--Immanuel Kant

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