Washington County is seeking to hire a contracted public defender to represent those defendants who cannot afford an attorney, a move which is expected to provide “significant” cost savings for the county.
The Board of Supervisors voted 6-1 to advertise for three contract positions — a criminal public defender, an attorney for juvenile services and a guardian ad litem — and use a contracted human resources attorney to facilitate the interview process.
Supervisor Steve Kruger, District 6-Arlington, voted against the motion as he believed the county could handle the interview process internally.
Washington County currently uses an assigned counsel system. Throughout the state, the only counties that use that system are counties with populations at about 9,000 residents or less, according to information provided by the Washington County Attorney's Office.
“Almost every other county either has an elected public defender or a contract public defender,” County Attorney Scott Vander Schaaf said.
The one exception is Dodge County, which has a population just more than 36,000.
Washington County paid court-appointed attorneys $75 an hour. That cost increased to $95 an hour July 1. However, the county has continually had issues with high attorney fee claims.
Vander Schaaf gave one example of a case in which the county received a bill for $9,700 from a court-appointed attorney. The same defendant with the same type of case, but with a different attorney in Douglas County, resulted in a bill for $2,400.
An individual must be found indigent to have the public defender appointed.
“That is something that has been problematic,” Vander Schaaf said.
A recent case in Washington County District Court found a defendant, who had been appointed an attorney, had significant assets. The judge ruled the defendant sell a vehicle to pay for a portion of his fees.
Vander Schaaf said the county could see “significant” savings by contracting an attorney or firm to serve as a public defender, provide juvenile services and a guardian ad litem. The initial contract would be a two-year term.
In the last four years, Washington County has paid $1.1 million in court-appointed attorney fees, according to information provided by Vander Schaaf. With three contracted positions, the county expects to pay an estimated $654,544 in the next four years.
“The biggest battle that we've been going back on here over the last few months is the thing with you and the fees and oversight of the fees, right?” Supervisor Jay Anderson, District 5-Blair, asked. “With a contracted (defender) that problem goes away, right?”
“Correct,” Vander Schaaf said.
“This seems like a no-brainer to me,” Anderson said.
In addition to eliminating issues with billing, a contracted public defender would also provide efficiency, accountability and quality representation.
“This is a way to provide a quality service for individuals that I know is going to get done,” Vander Schaaf said. “You'll have somebody on site, somebody that can meet with their clients, that can talk to people immediately, that don't need to have continuances.”
Supervisor Steve Kruger said even if the cost savings were a push, the efficiency alone would be beneficial.
“This is something we just need to try,” he said.
Anderson said he was uncomfortable with the personnel committee handling the interview process for the position, leading Supervisor Lisa Kramer, District 2-Kennard, to suggest using a human resources attorney who could facilitate the process.
Vander Schaaf said his office would also be available as a consultant. However, he would not make recommendations on potential candidates.
“We will be here for commentary, questions and feedback,” he said.
In a separate motion following a closed session, the board unanimously voted to deny any court-appointed attorney fees that do not comply with the District 6 rules, are submitted without review by the county attorney or without due process of the county and are not in compliance with the State of Nebraska statute.
Similar-sized counties with public defenders
Washington County's population is 20,721 based on 2017 estimates.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau and Washington County Attorney's Office
Actual, projected costs
Washington County court-appointed attorney fees paid
Total $1.1 million
Projected cost for contracted public defender
Projected cost for contracted juvenile defender
Projected cost for guardian ad litem
Source: Washington County Attorney's Office