Poor defendants have trouble accessing a quality legal defense, according to the Nevada Supreme Court.
The Boston-based Sixth Amendment Center released its findings to the Nevada Indigent Defense Commission on Friday, which details adult and juvenile criminal defendants in rural counties are underrepresented.
Chief Justice Michael Cherry is recommending to the state legislature that indigent criminal defendants have access to lawyers.
The report found rural defendants wait weeks or even months before speaking with an attorney.
Cherry is calling for a state-funded public defense commission to oversee all right-to-counsel services outside Washoe and Clark counties.
“Nevada’s rural counties simply cannot shoulder the state’s obligations under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution any longer,” Cherry said. “The financial burden will only increase as the U.S. Supreme Court continually clarifies and expands the obligations an attorney owes the indigent accused. We need to fix this problem now.”
In October, Churchill County approved the addition of two public defenders. The county hired Jacob Sommer and the firm of Troy Jordan and David Neidert to compliment longtime public defender Paul Drakulich.
Many counties, however, are in a Catch-22. According to the Nevada Association of Counties, rural counties are stretched financially, but more people qualify for public defenders due to the current economic conditions.
In addition, the limited number of attorneys in rural counties presents another issue. Even when appointed counsel, a defendant “may be one of several hundred vying for the time and attention of the lawyer,” the report stated.
Another issue for rural attorneys is the cost of each case. For example, the study looked at Douglas County, which spent $383,683 in 2007 on two primary public defenders and $46,661 on conflict counsel plus $23,036 on case-related services.
Douglas County had 202 felony cases including one murder case, 3,249 misdemeanors and 341 juvenile delinquency cases.
On average, only $119.56 was available to cover attorney’s fees, overheard and out-of-pocket expenses.
More alarming, however, was Lyon County. The report cited a Las Vegas Review-Journal article in 2007 concerning the contracted attorney.
A 27-year-old attorney who passed the bar “a few weeks prior” was awarded the $105,000 contract.
The workload, though, came with 600 cases including 200 felony cases “and some of those were murder cases.”
“So a brand new, part-time attorney with no experience or training was expected to jump into a caseload that under national standards should have been handled by more than three experience full-time attorneys,” the report stated.
The Review-Journal story found attorneys must travel between 400 to 600 miles per week to courthouses in Yerington and Fernley. Fuel costs reached $4,000.
The contract, according to the study, said attorneys have trouble covering costs such as insurance, bar fees, training, renting office space, Internet, experts and investigations to name a few. The report also says to fix the crisis has proven to be more difficult. Reasons include a “lack of attorneys, no financial incentives, geographic expanse and limited infrastructure.”
“Perhaps most importantly, though, most rural Nevada counties have insufficient resources to keep pace with the United States Supreme Court as it continually clarifies and expands the responsibilities that attorneys owe to their clients under the Sixth Amendment,” the report concluded.