Auditors say public lawyers for the indigent need help
Executive branch auditors say two legal offices dedicated to helping those who can’t afford private counsel need some help to do their job better.
Auditor Bill Chisel told Gov. Kenny Guinn and two other members of the Executive Branch Audit Committee Nevada has three different ways of providing criminal defenders for those who can’t afford a lawyer. Washoe and Clark counties have their own public defender staffs. Eight other counties including Carson City rely on the state public defender’s office headed by Steve McGuire and seven remaining counties including Douglas have contracts with private attorneys. Some of those counties went with private contracts to save money and there have been concerns raised periodically that defendants who rely on public defenders don’t always get adequate representation.
“Nevada’s various methods of providing public defense create the potential for inadequate and inconsistent representation,” said the audit report. It said without statewide oversight of public defense services, there is no guarantee of that.
The audit recommended creating a public defense commission to take a good look at the system and make sure indigent defendants are getting the quality legal services they are entitled to.
McGuire told Guinn and the committee he agrees there is a pressing need to examine the system and make sure criminal defendants receive consistent and quality representation. And he made it clear he believes that should be a state responsibility.
Auditors called for a task force to develop the powers and duties of a public defense commission including whether it should set standards for public defense. The commission would be charged with developing caseload standards for public defenders, who often have far more cases than private lawyers, and performance standards.
The commission would also act as an advocate for public defenders statewide to the governor’s office and legislature.
Auditors also urged the governor provide additional staff and a new computerized case management system for the Nevada Attorney for Injured Workers. Nancy Ann Leeder, who heads that office, agreed with auditors her staff has more cases than private lawyers. They average about 100 per attorney compared with about 66 cases in private practice.
But both auditors and Leeder said the big need is for additional support staff to help prepare cases. She told Guinn her budget request includes two researchers as well as the electronic case management system.