By Robert C. Boruchowitz
The King County Council has approved a charter amendment to go to the voters this fall that would establish a county Department of Public Defense headed by a county public defender, replacing the former nonprofit defender system. In addition, the Council established a county Public Defense Department on an interim basis and approved an interim agreement with the four nonprofit offices to work as divisions within the new department until the end of the year.
The Council also established a short-term advisory task force and is taking public input on a proposed implementing ordinance that would provide some of the details of how the new department would function.
These changes were precipitated by a state Supreme Court decision that the nonprofit defenders were entitled to retirement benefits and by a settlement of the underlying litigation in that case that resulted in the defenders becoming county employees.
Charter Amendment Would Protect Against Political Interference
In addition to creating the department to provide constitutionally required public defense services, the proposed charter amendment states, "The department of public defense shall also foster and promote system improvements, efficiencies, access to justice and equity in the criminal justice system." Elected officials "shall not interfere with the exercise of these duties by the department."
The director, to be called the public defender, is to be appointed by the county executive, subject to confirmation by the County Council, to a term that ends at the same time as the term of the county prosecuting attorney, unless removed earlier by the executive for cause.
In the draft implementation ordinance, the County commits to maintaining an excellent defender program:
The county intends to maintain the high quality of public defense services that public defense attorneys and staff have delivered and to which King County has long been committed, by promoting independence from political influence, a quality work force and operational efficiency in the provision of public defense services.
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