Officials told Nevada lacks indigent defendant services
The executive director of the Sixth Amendment Center said Thursday Nevada needs to provide more support and services to improve legal representation to indigent defendants in the state’s rural counties.
David Carroll told the Right to Counsel Commission headed by Supreme Court Justice Michael Cherry the U.S. Supreme Court says under the 14th Amendment, “the state must guarantee local government is capable of providing adequate representation and must ensure they are doing so.”
He said Nevada has no mechanism to oversee the indigent defense process operated independently by most of the state’s counties.
The 6th Amendment guarantees defendants a fair and speedy trial, an attorney and the right to confront his or her accusers.
In some Nevada counties such as Humboldt, he said the system is working. District Judge John Stegelmilch told the commission it’s working well in Lyon, too.
But that’s not the case statewide.
“The state is failing that 14th Amendment obligation,” Carroll said, adding, as a result, Nevada is being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union that argues defendant rights are being violated in many cases.
“The state is responsible for whatever problems that have endured for the past 20 years because it’s a state responsibility,” Carroll said.
As an example, he said, “No one can say with clarity how much is being spent on indigent services.” He said five rural counties don’t even show public defender expenditures as a separate budget item.
The state public defender only provides those services in Carson City and Storey County. The largest counties, Clark and Washoe, have fully staffed public defender offices. For the rest of the state, the counties are on their own with no state funding or other support.
Carroll conducted an extensive study of how Nevada counties provide indigent defense services, visiting every court in the state in the process. He said he and rural county officials believe local governments are in the best position to decide how to provide those services in each jurisdiction because one size doesn’t fit all. He said recreating the statewide public defender’s operation that was disbanded in 1980 isn’t the answer and locals universally believe public defenders who live in their communities are better able to provide those legal services. In some cases, he said that would be private lawyers under contract to provide legal services. In others, they would be county employees.
He said the counties are concerned the state might step in and just take over the system, imposing one system on everyone.
But he said those jurisdictions made it clear they would welcome state involvement and support in providing services such as creating a central repository for data so county commissioners have some place to go to determine if the applicants for those public defender contracts are good or bad for the jobs.
“What if the state body vetted attorneys so they know this attorney can handle these kinds of cases?” he asked.
He said everyone of the more than 150 interviewed for his study agreed rural public defenders could use training and would appreciate the state taking on that responsibility. In addition, he said they supported the idea of the state listing qualified investigators in different specialties as well as expert witnesses to help both contract public defenders and those employed directly by the counties find qualified help to defend people.
Commission member Drew Christensen representing the Clark County Commission said that county is trying to keep a repository of qualified experts available to lawyers. He said in Clark, the most common request is for psychologists.
Carroll said the Clark County public defender’s office provides training and maybe the state could partner with them to provide classes and support for rural defense counsel.
The commission will meet again July 27 to hear more from Carroll on some counties that are having more problems with indigent defense.