Consultant says Nevada public defender system needs oversight
The commission studying Nevada’s public defender system was told on Friday the state needs an independent Indigent Defense Commission to ensure the rights of defendants without much money are protected.
At present, David Carroll of the Sixth Amendment Center said there’s no one doing that.
“Without anyone to monitor, you’re not able to guarantee people aren’t being impacted because the standards aren’t being followed,” he said.
Carroll said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled states have an obligation to make sure defendants, especially those without money, are being provided effective legal representation.
He said the state can delegate the responsibility to the cities and counties but he said that doesn’t relieve the state of the obligation to ensure defendants are getting what they’re constitutionally entitled to.
“Your state has no infrastructure to ensure that obligation is being met,” he said.
He said an independent commission could set standards, including for maximum caseloads, and would be required to ensure the lawyers have the proper skills, support and training as well as the time needed to handle each of their cases.
The independent commission would be responsible to create standards to “make sure that happens.”
In Nevada, he said public defenders in most rural counties are contract lawyers who are part-time, often handling caseloads that are much greater than national standards allow.
“If the state does pass on that obligation, they are still required to make sure counties and cities are not only able to provide effective representation but are doing so,” he said.
Carroll said he and his staff are now writing the final report they’ll present to the commission next month but there are some significant problems in particularly rural Nevada counties.
He said, for example, one municipal court they reviewed, “routinely charges $250 from every client who asks for a public defender,” without examining whether that defendant can afford the cost. He said they saw many instances in which a defendant decided to forego having a lawyer because of that cost and represent himself.
Across several of the rural counties, he said, caseloads on contract public defenders are too large. Even in Elko which has a county public defenders’ office, the attorneys have caseloads way above standards.
In Churchill County, he said the county had three public defense contractors who were all overloaded. But this year, he said, “they decided to get rid of one of the contractors so they now have two attorneys handling the work that was too much for three attorneys.”