The leaders of King County’s four public defense agencies today sent a letter to Metropolitan King County Council President Larry Gossett and Councilmember Kathy Lambert, who heads the council’s Law, Justice, Health and Human Services Committee, to voice opposition to a county plan that would dissolve the independent agencies and make public defenders county employees.
Last week, David Chapman, who heads the King County Office of Public Defense, announced that nearly 400 employees of the four agencies — The Defender Association, Society of Counsel Representing Accused Persons, Associated Counsel for the Accused and Northwest Defenders Association — could potentially become King County employees by July 1. Chapman’s office assigns cases to the four firms, dividing the nearly $40 million per year the county spends on public defense.
The proposal for the county to hire the public defenders stems from a lawsuit filed in 2006 against the county by Kevin Dolan, a public defender at the Associated Council for the Accused. Dolan said he filed the lawsuit on behalf of employees of the four defender groups who sought enrollment in the county’s retirement system. Since the 1960s, King County has contracted public defense services from the non-profit firms.
A top leader in one public defense agency said a work group of lawyers, community members and other stakeholders should be created to evaluate King County’s public defense system.
“The implication of the Executive’s proposal are sweeping and require a public discussion, accurate assessment of the costs of various options and a fair consideration of different possible approaches going foward,” the letter read.
In an interview last week, Chapman told The Times that it isn’t clear how much it will cost the county to create its own public defense system.
Most of the state’s large counties, including Pierce, Skagit, Whatcom, Spokane and Yakima, have in-house public-defense firms along with separate prosecutor’s offices.
Chapman said the idea of making public defense services part of King County’s legal services has been reviewed numerous times. But, the startup costs of creating a new branch of county government was always deemed too expensive.