New Public Defenders Office in Lawrence hopes to help people charged with felonies both in and outside the courtroom
photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World
Douglas County’s new Public Defenders Office is hoping to become a force in the community for helping people accused of felonies to understand their rights and to navigate the often daunting criminal justice system.
The new office, the Seventh Judicial District Public Defender Office, is right next to the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center in downtown Lawrence. It’s home to six attorneys and six support staff, most of whom live in the county. The attorneys began taking cases in October, said the office’s chief public defender, Jessica Glendening, in an email to the Journal-World. The office, which operates under the direction of the Kansas State Board of Indigents’ Defense Services, known as BIDS, provides legal representation to people charged with felonies who cannot afford an attorney.
“Our clients are members of the Douglas County community who need assistance navigating a complex and sometimes overwhelming legal system, which is often complicated by larger systemic issues like poverty, disability, mental illness, and substance use disorders,” Glendening said.
Attorneys in the office not only work on legal defenses for their clients but also recognize that they deserve to be treated with dignity regardless of the accusations against them, Glendening said.
The office opened after a lengthy process involving the Douglas County Commission. In considering the potential for a BIDS office over the past couple of years, commissioners heard evidence indicating that a formal defenders office in the county would have a higher level of accountability and could result in improved outcomes for defendants, as the Journal-World reported. The Kansas State Board of Indigents’ Defense Services voted in 2021 to open the office and estimated that services would begin this year.
According to one report, indigent defense services in Douglas County cost the state, not the county, an average of $800,000 per year in 2019 and 2020, up from an average of about $600,000 from 2014 to 2018. The average cost per Douglas County case for people needing appointed counsel in 2020 was about $1,181, which was about $338 higher than state public defender offices. whose cases cost an average of $843.
Previously, the court assigned felony cases to private attorneys who serve on a BIDS panel and who operate independently from their own law firms. The court regularly appoints cases to 12 different panel attorneys based on their varying abilities to handle different levels of cases, said Douglas County Chief Judge James McCabria.
Panel attorneys are not directly supervised by BIDS, but the BIDS accounting department does audit and facilitate their payment, according to the BIDS website.
“Cases are assigned on a rotating schedule with the primary variable being that not all attorneys are approved to accept all case types,” McCabria said.
The Kansas sentencing guidelines break felony crimes down into 10 severity levels, and cases are assigned according to an attorney’s experience, McCabria said.
The new Public Defenders Office has been added to the court’s regular appointments list, and the chief of the local BIDS office is responsible for appropriately assigning attorneys within her office, McCabria said.
Oversight of attorneys’ behavior in the courtroom falls on the court, McCabria said, but attorneys within the defenders office have additional scrutiny.
“The Court always has oversight of attorney performance, and if a judge were to develop a concern about any attorney’s representation, that judge could address the issue with the attorney and, in the case of BIDS, with the local BIDS director,” McCabria said.
Glendening said that the office wants to have an attorney present at a defendant’s first appearance after an arrest at both the courthouse and the jail, depending where the defendant is asked to appear, so that an attorney can help navigate the client through the first legal phase. Another attorney may later be assigned to actually work the case.
First appearances are scheduled in a couple of ways. Either they are scheduled within 48 hours of an arrest, or a defendant can be issued a summons in the mail with a specific court date. At a first appearance, the court asks the prosecution for a recommendation for bond conditions and then asks the defendant for input on that recommendation. If defendants who are in custody do not know how to argue for an affordable bond, they could remain in jail until their attorney can schedule a hearing with a judge to reconsider the bond. With the high case load in Douglas County, scheduling that hearing could take days or even weeks.
Glendening said that the local office and the BIDS agency have the goal of raising the standards and quality of public defense services across Kansas by focusing on nationally accepted best practices, appropriate caseload controls, extensive training and better resources for attorneys.
“We want to provide constitutionally necessary zealous and effective representation of our clients,” Glendening said.
She said in addition to the attorneys on staff, the administrative staff, investigators and a mitigation specialist within the office enable the collaborative problem-solving that criminal cases require.
“We work together within our office to help support our clients and address some of those systemic issues that are impacting our clients beyond simply resolving their legal charges,” Glendening said.