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Washington State Bar Association OKs far lower caseloads for public defenders

SEATTLE (AP) — The Washington State Bar Association has approved far lower case limits for public defenders in an effort to stop them from quitting, to help with recruiting and to make sure they have enough time to represent each client properly.

The new limits adopted at a meeting of the Bar's board of governors by a 12-1 vote March 8 are designed to cut maximum caseloads by about two-thirds over the next several years, The Seattle Times reported Wednesday.

“Public defense is in crisis right now,” Jason Schwarz, director of the Snohomish County Office of Public Defense, told the Bar, which regulates attorneys statewide. “If we do nothing, we’re going to remain in crisis.”

Skeptics agree the system is breaking down but are concerned about finding more attorneys to cover the cases. Many counties, especially rural ones, already struggle to employ enough public defenders and get almost no state funding.

“This could be what bankrupts smaller counties like ours” unless the new limits help persuade state lawmakers to allocate more funding, Franklin County Administrator Mike Gonzalez said in a statement before the meeting. “At some point, we simply will not be able to pay the bills anymore.”

Attorneys are supposed to be provided to criminal defendants who can’t afford to pay, but public defenders are in short supply and busy. So some people who are presumed innocent are spending more time in jail, some prosecutions are being dismissed and county costs are climbing.

Proponents acknowledge that the changes likely will add expenses for counties but say won't be all at once. Some advocates hope the move will push counties to consider alternative strategies that could reduce the number of cases they prosecute.

The Bar’s Council on Public Defense began working on new standards in 2022. In October the state Supreme Court asked the Bar to recommend revisions for the state after a national report reassessed how many cases public defenders should be expected to handle and proposed a new way of calculating reasonable limits.

During debate Friday, proponents urged the Bar to make the changes.

“I am horrified that in 2024, in our democracy, in this state, people wait before they get their constitutional rights,” said Adam Heyman, a King County public defender. “My clients sit in jail and rot.”

For decades public defender caseloads were capped at 150 felonies or 400 misdemeanors per year. That will change incrementally beginning in 2025 and reach a new cap of 47 felonies or 120 misdemeanors in 2027, with lower maximums for certain case types. A defender working only on murder cases would be limited to about seven per year.

The state Supreme Court wields ultimate authority over criminal proceedings and hasn't decided yet whether to adopt the new limits. The court’s existing rules are modeled on the Bar’s old standards.

Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington State Association of Counties, said the new limits could require doubling or tripling the $200 million that counties currently spend on public defense each year. He asked the Bar to help lobby for state funding.

Lawmakers passed a bill this month to train law students and new attorneys to serve as public defenders in rural and underserved areas, but advocates say that is unlikely to solve the crisis overnight.

Before the vote, bar board member Serena Sayani called the old limits unsustainable.

“We are failing the service of our public by not having a system in place that allows people to have adequate representation,” Sayani said.