By Idaho Public Radio Staff

Governor Butch Otter has signed into law bills on public defense reform passed by the 2016 Idaho State Legislature.

State lawmakers appropriated $5.48 million for the Public Defense Commission; grants from that funding will pay for counties to raise standards for public defenders.

A statement from the Governor’s Office says the legislature’s appropriation was consistent with the Governor’s Executive Budget recommendation and to “advance efforts to reform Idaho’s constitutionally deficient public defense system.”

The reforms stem from recommendations made by a legislative interim committee that had studied the issues over the past three years.The interim committee suggested a $5.48 million appropriation.

On February 9th, Darrell Bolz, chair of the Idaho Public Defense Commission, had told the legislature’s budget-writing committee that cost estimates for a full public defense system in Idaho would range from $12 million to $40 million, depending on the kind of system established.


(Darrell Bolz before JFAC on February 9th. Nishant Mohan photo)

H 504 was signed March 24th. Its Statement of Purpose: “To improve the delivery of trial-level indigent defense services by providing funding to counties and creating standards with which counties must comply. It is the product of the Public Defense Reform Interim Committee, which studied the issue for three years at the direction of the Legislative Council.”

The Public Defense Commission will “promulgate rules for indigent defense standards; to require compliance with indigent defense standards, to provide for indigent defense grants, to provide application procedures for indigent defense grants, to provide procedures for noncompliance with indigent defense standards; and to revise reporting requirements.”

H 609, signed March 30th, was the trailer bill with the appropriation for the costs associated with the expanded roles and responsibilities of the Public Defense Commission, and adds $5.48 million in funding for FY ’17 as follows:

$4,266,500 for formulaic grants to counties to offset the cost of compliance with indigent defense standards;
$550,000 to incentivize counties to merge their services and form joint public defender offices;
$250,000 for additional funding to counties for extraordinary litigation costs;
$368,700 in personnel costs,
$34,200 in operating expenditures,
$13,400 in one-time capital outlay;
4.50 FTP to the Public Defense Commission
S 1361, signed by Governor Otter on March 28th, has no impact on the General Fund but gives counties the flexibility to “cover the cost of public defense services for indigent individuals out of the justice fund, the current expense fund or the indigent fund.”

Leo Morales, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, said in a statement, “House Bill 504 will begin the long process of fixing the state’s broken public defense system, and we applaud the legislature and the governor for making it law.

“Although this legislation signifies historic progress, it serves only as a first step in providing relief to counties, public defenders, and most importantly, the thousands of jailed Idahoans suffering the consequences of a public defense system that can’t do its job.

“The mere enactment of HB 504 will not correct the structural problems that prevent Idahoans who can’t afford a private attorney from receiving the legal representation that is their constitutional due. Only with substantial additional work by the Idaho Public Defense Commission, Governor Otter, and the Idaho Legislature, buttressed by substantial additional funding, will we bring an end to a constitutional crisis that has robbed too many of their right to counsel—and sometimes their freedom.”

The ACLU of Idaho said it believed the $5.48 million is “a far cry from the nearly $25 million experts estimate will be needed to bring all counties in Idaho into constitutional compliance” and it says it will be watching closely to see how efforts proceed.

Posted April 3, 2016