County leaders to discuss new options for public defense, including nonprofit’s proposal for holistic approach
photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World File Photo
County leaders will soon discuss public defender services for people who are accused of crimes and cannot afford attorneys, including a proposal from a new nonprofit that hopes to offer another model.
As part of its study session Wednesday, the Douglas County Commission will receive presentations from Kansas Holistic Defenders, a newly formed nonprofit that aims to provide social support as well as public defense in an effort to address other issues its clients face. The commission will also hear a presentation from the Kansas State Board of Indigents’ Defense Services about the potential creation of a state-operated public defender office for Douglas County.
The public defender system has been a topic of conversation among county officials as a possible solution to court efficiency issues and to processing cases more quickly to reduce overcrowding in the county jail, as the Journal-World recently reported.
Kansas Holistic Defenders has proposed the county contract with and provide funding for the organization, which would employ attorneys and social support staff. The idea is that the organization would provide additional services, such as support for substance abuse, behavioral health and financial issues, to help defendants rehabilitate and decrease repeat offenses. Kansas Holistic Defenders would begin by working with those accused of misdemeanor offenses, and the service would be in addition to, not in place of, the county’s current options for public defense. The proposal calls for Douglas County to provide more than $600,000 to the organization. The organization could also potentially receive state funding.
Douglas County already provides funding for the public defense of misdemeanor cases, while the state funds felony cases. Public defense is currently provided through a panel of private defense attorneys who are appointed by the court to take on individual cases. However, the Kansas State Board of Indigents’ Defense Services, or BIDS, is currently reviewing whether a state-operated public defender office is appropriate for Douglas County. If established, the office would likely provide defense for the bulk of felony cases that need appointed counsel in the county.
The meeting will include information about BIDS historical costs and estimate of an office for Douglas County felonies, Douglas County budget items for juvenile and misdemeanor defense services, and data about bookings and length of stay in the Douglas County Jail for district misdemeanor-only charges. A “rough estimate” of a new public defender office in Douglas County would be $810,000 annually, according to a memo to the commission from Criminal Justice Coordinator Mike Brouwer. The memo states that given the estimates, it would appear that the general cost of maintaining a public defender office in Douglas County would be fairly comparable to the current cost of the assigned counsel program.
The county’s total budget for defense services in the 2021 budget is $855,000, according to the memo. Of that, Douglas County has allocated $425,000 to the district court for indigent adult misdemeanor cases and $295,000 for juvenile panel attorneys. The county also provides $45,000 to the district court for “care and treatment” counsel, $40,000 to the University of Kansas Legal Aid Society for juvenile defense representation, and $50,000 to the Behavioral Health Court, Drug Court and Enhanced Diversion Defense Counsel.
Both the Kansas Holistic Defenders and the Kansas State Board of Indigents’ Defense Services have presented to Douglas County’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council in the past year. As part of Wednesday’s study session, representatives from both organizations will discuss costs and other issues with the commission, according to the memo. The memo states that several officials will also participate in the discussion, including Douglas County District Court Chief Judge James McCabria, Judicial District Administrator Linda Koester-Vogelsang, Douglas County Defense Bar representative and CJCC council member Shaye Downing; and Douglas County Defense Bar representative Mike Clarke.
The County Commission will convene at 4 p.m. for its study session and 5:30 p.m. for its regular business meeting. The meeting will be open to the walk-in public at the county courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St., but a link for the public to watch live online is available on the county’s website, douglascountyks.org. Residents may also call in and listen by phone by dialing 1-312-626-6799 and entering meeting ID 934 6231 3227.