King County is preparing to end its long-running and highly-regarded contracted public defense system, putting more than 200 defense attorneys under its own roof and raising concerns of local judges and lawyers.
Currently, four non-profit agencies handle roughly 90% of the public defense work in King County. In 2006, one of those defense attorneys sued in an effort to get those employees county pension and health care. Two years ago, the State Supreme Court ruled against the county, forcing officials to pay past and present benefits.
A settlement proposed in January, and restructuring announced Friday, would also merge the four non-profits into two county legal divisions within the Executive Branch.
“If there’s a reason to change it, tell us what it is and how it can be better,” said Eileen Farley, director of the Northwest Defenders Association, “Tell us why you want to spend $5 or $13 million coming up with something that looks a lot like what we have now.”
Cost is one of the main issues cited by Farley and the other non-profits. Director of King County’s Office of Public Defense David Chapman said Sunday it would cost around $3.2 million to make the switch.
“We’re not looking at starting over,” Chapman explained, “We’re trying to move forward. “
Critics include Presiding Superior Court Judge Richard McDermott, who wrote a letter to the county that there are concerns over “the effect on criminal justice efficiencies and operations” and “potential attorney assignment conflicts” if the non-profit defense lawyers were put under one roof.
Chapman points out the plan is to create two divisions of county defenders, to prevent conflicts.
“The legal issue (settlement) is a very large driver of why this has to happen,” he said.
Clarity on what’s next must come by March in advance of the contract conclusion in June