Racial justice to be key consideration for county leaders in potential changes to public defense system

photo by: Chris Conde

The Douglas County Courthouse is pictured in September 2018.

County leaders hope changes in public defender services for defendants who cannot afford attorneys can help address racial justice issues and the disproportionate number of people of color in the county jail.

As part of its study session Wednesday, the Douglas County Commission discussed two potential changes to how public defense is handled in the county. Commission Chair Shannon Portillo, a University of Kansas associate professor and administrator who has extensively studied criminal justice, said the role of public defense in issues of racial equity has been part of both national and local conversations for years.

“We know that there is a call for racial justice across the county and across our state,” Portillo said. “We’re looking at what are some of the institutional responses.”

Currently, Douglas County District Court appoints public defense cases to a panel of private defense attorneys, with the county funding the misdemeanor cases and the state funding the felony cases. The idea is that the two changes would be in addition to the current process.

Newly formed nonprofit Kansas Holistic Defenders, which would employ attorneys and social support staff in an effort to address other issues clients face, is proposing to work with those accused of misdemeanor offenses at a cost to the county of more than $600,000 annually.

In addition, the Kansas State Board of Indigents’ Defense Services, or BIDS, is currently reviewing whether a state-operated public defender office should be established to handle Douglas County’s felony cases. If established, the office would likely provide defense for the bulk of felony cases that need appointed counsel in the county and is estimated to cost about $810,000 annually, funding that would typically come from the state.

The county already provides funding for case management and other supportive services as part of its defense services, and pretrial evaluations can lead to a client being referred to various social service agencies. Part of Wednesday’s discussion, which included Douglas County District Court Chief Judge James McCabria and two Douglas County Defense Bar representatives, centered on what the nonprofit would do that the county wasn’t already doing and what problems the county sought to address.

“When I talk to other members of the defense panel here in town, I think everyone kind of feels a little attacked by this,” Defense Bar representative Mike Clarke said. “It seems somewhat sudden, because I think there’s quite a bit of pride within the panel in terms of the efforts that we make.”

In response to Clarke, Portillo said conversations about the criminal legal system, public defense and its role in racial equity have been happening across the country. She said that while there were quality defense attorneys on the panel, there was also room for improvement in the general public defense system.

Portillo also noted during the meeting that Gov. Laura Kelly’s Commission and Racial Equity and Justice recommended that jurisdictions with populations over 100,000 have an institutional public defender’s office.

Commission Vice Chair Shannon Reid, who is a court advocate for the Willow Domestic Violence Center, said she understood that defense attorneys did work to connect their clients to social services, but that in her experience the support and advocacy that people received varied. Reid said an office with oversight, institutionalized training and support staff could improve those experiences, and that there was an opportunity for more continuity and collaboration.

“There’s always gaps and there’s always room for improvement, and that’s not a critique or an attack on people rendering those services currently,” Reid said. “It’s an acknowledgment that we have an opportunity to do more.”

Commissioner Patrick Kelly said it has been a goal of his to reduce the racial disparities seen at the jail, and that he’d like to hear from each system — the public defense bar, Kansas Holistic Defenders and BIDS — about what strategies they think might change those numbers, whether under the current system or the proposed hybrid systems.

“I want to make sure that we don’t lose that focus in our discussions,” Kelly said.

The commission will continue the discussion of potential changes to the county’s public defense system at a future meeting.


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