By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports
The House Ways and Means Committee introduced a bill Tuesday that would further outline the overhaul of how public defense is funded in Idaho.
The bill comes after House Bill 735, passed in 2022, and creates a new model for public defense. It would eliminate the Public Defense Commission and create a new office, the Office of the State Public Defender.
In its statement of purpose, the bill says “Idaho Supreme Court recently held that the state remains liable for inadequate provision of public defense in this state, even though the requirement to provide public defense has been delegated to counties since 1967.”
The U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment states all criminal defendants have the right to an attorney if they cannot afford one. Historically, the state has mandated counties pay for public defense.
Rep. Jon Weber, R-Rexburg, explained there would be a transition cost of about $4.4 million this fiscal year. The new State Public Defender’s Office would take effect in fiscal year 2025. There would be a total annual appropriation of $48 million in the 2024 Legislative Session.
In 2021, the Idaho Supreme Court unanimously found Idaho’s public defense system to be problematic after years of litigation.
The bill brought by Weber must still get a public hearing, but it would establish multiple new laws. The governor would appoint the new State Public Defender to serve a four-year term.
The Office of the State Public Defender would ensure qualified defending attorneys, investigators and other staff, as well as appropriate facilities for providing indigent public defense. In each of the state’s seven judicial districts, the state must employ a district public defender.
The transition from county to state public defense is outlined in detail in the bill. After Oct. 1, 2024, all counties would be released of financial or legal obligations to indigent public defense. The state public defender would reimburse counties for any expenses incurred in providing office space and related expenses for public defenders.
The new state public defender and district public defenders shall, to the greatest extent possible, provide the option to current defending attorneys employed by a county office to continue their employment with the office of the state public defender, working in the county that previously employed them.
The bill also mandates the state to establish a volunteer transition advisory board, consisting of representatives from the Idaho Association of Counties and one attorney from each judicial district.
The bill must still get a hearing before the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee before moving forward.
Idaho Reports spoke with State Appellate Public Defender Eric Fredericksen and Idaho Association of Counties executive director Seth Grigg in 2022 about House Bill 735 and its contribution to the state’s public defense transition.