Carson City decision over proper public defender strategy in limbo

Carson City officials commissioned a report and analysis that urged either dickering with the state over costs for indigents' legal defense or pursuing use of private attorneys on a contract basis.

Negotiations based on report recommendations, however, likely will await action in Nevada's Legislature. General Assembly bill 49 would help fund public indigent legal defense.

"I think we need to watch what happens to that," said Mayor Robert Crowell on Monday.

His comments were similar to those of City Manager Larry Werner when the Moss-Adams LLP report was discussed last week. Werner said awaiting the fate of the legislative measure was in the cards first.

The legislation, which was introduced on behalf of the Nevada Association of Counties by the Committee on Taxation, will have the mayor tracking it even as he seeks clarity on other data as well.

"I'm watching that bill; a similar bill died in 2011," Crowell said. "The first step: We need a little more clarity on what the costs are."

The NACO bill in the Assembly would impose a 1/8th-cent state sales tax boost and allow counties, on an optional basis, to do the same in their jurisdictions.

The money would be for a county public defender, use of the Nevada State Public Defender, or some other manner of providing constitutionally required legal services to the indigent.

Carson City currently uses the state's public defender office to handle such court cases, as do three other counties. They are Storey, Eureka and White Pine counties.

The two most populous counties, Clark and Washoe, along with Elko, Humboldt and Pershing each have a county public defender.

Eight counties use contract attorneys: Churchill, Douglas, Esmeralda, Lander, Lincoln, Lyon, Mineral and Nye.

"Indigent defense services in Carson City are currently supplied by the (Nevada State Public Defender) and three conflict attorneys," according to the report. Conflict attorneys come into play when the state office determines a particular case would pose a conflict for the office.

"Carson City's total indigent defense budget for (Fiscal Year 2011-12) was approximately $1.325 million, including NSPD and conflict attorneys," the Moss-Adams report said.

However, other costs and refunds in some years make that a fluid figure and one of the matters prompting the Board of Supervisors to continue grappling with the issues is another fluid matter: Other counties no longer using the state option.

"Since 2007, three counties have left the NSPD," said the report. Lincoln County went to a contractual basis , Pershing and Humboldt established their own offices.

"As counties have left the NSPD, Carson City's percentage of costs has risen," the report indicated, but so did the percentage of hours the state office devoted to the capital city's indigent-related cases.

The report, delivered to the Board of Supervisors by Mark Steranka, director of policy and planning for Moss-Adams, made this recommendation first:

"Work with the NSPD to determine how to obtain more cost effective services or pursue an all-contract attorney indigent defense model."

In other words, the report steered board members away from turning to the third option of establishing a public defender's office in Carson City.

Other report recommendations dovetailed in part with the mayor's idea about collecting more data.

They were: Collect case data from conflict/contract attorneys; include performance standards in attorney contracts, and gain greater visibility by city administration of indigent defense costs paid directly by the courts.

The report also noted this isn't a new issue. It said in 2007, Carson City considered having its own public defender, "but only a small cost savings was expected."

In 2011, an all-contract model was discussed, the report said, "but the timing was too late to introduce during the upcoming legislative session."


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