New caseload caps being considered for public defense attorneys could require counties to hire more lawyers to avoid overworking them.
The legislation under consideration would limit public defenders to 210 felony cases, requiring counties with higher caseload averages to hire more attorneys. Public defenders also would be limited to 520 misdemeanor cases, 232 juvenile cases and 2 capital cases at a time.
Bonneville County Chief Public Defender Jordan Crane said the county's public defense office would have to see if the state would volunteer funds to help counties cover the cost of hiring additional attorneys. Idaho Gov. Brad Little has called for $17 million in funding to counties to hire public defenders.
Public defense offices are funded by counties, rather than the state. The Idaho Association of Counties has advocated in the past for the state to take a more active role in funding public defense. In 2016 the Legislature passed a bill to provide $5.5 million in funding to the Public Defense Commission, which in turn gave grants to the counties.
Bonneville County Commissioner Roger Christensen said the Bonneville County Public Defender's Office is evaluating its caseloads to determine how many new attorneys would be needed. He said it's not just a matter of dividing cases among the attorneys, and that entry-level defense attorneys may have smaller caseloads.
"Until they get that done, we really can't determine how much it will cost," Christensen said.
The ACLU has been lukewarm toward the proposed caseload caps, stating they are not low enough and should instead follow recommendations set by the American Bar Association that defense attorneys should handle no more than 150 felony cases a year.
According to data provided by the Idaho Public Defense Commission, Bonneville County public defenders have an average caseload of 268 felonies a year, well above the proposed caseload cap. Bingham County's average is more than double the American Bar Association's recommendations at 320 felony cases per public defense attorney. Madison County is closer to the new caseload caps with an average of 228 felony cases per attorney. Jefferson County has an average caseload of 165, below the proposed caseload caps, but above the bar recommendations.
Defense Attorney James Archibald represents clients in all 10 District 7 counties, both privately and as a public defender. His own caseload is above the recommended caps, and he said most attorneys he knows do not limit themselves to 40 hours a week, requiring overtime.
The caseload caps are particularly important to Archibald as one of two attorneys in the district qualified to serve as a defense attorney in death penalty cases. The caps would limit an attorney to only two capital cases at a time, rather than a set annual amount.
Archibald said, however, that the limit on capital cases would be unlikely to affect his work, and that judges are reluctant to give defense attorneys more than one death penalty case at a time. Archibald said attorneys typically spend 20 hours a week on a death penalty case, and that two cases at once would be a full-time job.
The quality of Idaho's public defense has been the subject of debate and lawsuits for years, since a 2010 report by the National Legal Aid & Defender Association found that Idaho doesn't provide adequate defense for defendants who cannot afford counsel. The report found that throughout the state, most defendants make their first appearance in court without first speaking to a lawyer.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against Idaho and the Idaho Public Defense Commission in 2015, alleging the under-resourced and overworked public defense offices were not enough to meet the state's constitutional requirement to provide indigent defendant's with a good defense.
"The state of Idaho must invest adequate resources to establish an effective system of public defense to uphold the constitutional rights for all," the ACLU of Idaho states on its website.
ACLU Community Engagement Manager Jeremy Woodson said he wanted to know more about how the Public Defense Commission settled on those caseload caps based on the data it collected. He also said the state needed to address what attorneys should do if they're near those caseload caps.
The caseload caps were chosen based on research by Boise State University. The study found that public defenders spend about four hours on average for a felony case, but noted that time can vary greatly based on the specifics of a case. Misdemeanor cases require an average of two hours of work.
"Essentially, each and every case an attorney handles is different in nature, even if it is the same case type," the report concludes. "Thus, not all misdemeanors are the same just as not all felony cases are the same. Therefore, one cannot expect all cases of the same type to take the same amount of time."