Editorial: Slow down on defender plan

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

Douglas County commissioners should slow down, accept delay and create a process to get proposals from entities that want to improve how indigent clients in the county’s criminal justice system receive legal representation.

Commissioners should not speed ahead with approval of a proposal at their meeting next week. The reason why is simple: Commissioners have obligations that are even greater than improving the indigent defense system.

One of those obligations is to build the public’s trust in government. Revelations over the last week have eroded that trust, but it can be repaired if commissioners take the time to do it.

Let’ do a quick summary: What’s indigent defense? When you hear the cop on the TV show say “you have a right to an attorney and if you cannot afford one, one will be appointed for you” — that appointment is indigent defense. The county is responsible for appointing attorneys for people accused of misdemeanor offenses, while the state is responsible for felony appointments. The county wants to improve its system, and hopes the state will improve its system.

The county has a proposal from a nonprofit entity, Kansas Holistic Defenders, to replace the current panel of attorneys who are appointed to such misdemeanor cases. The county has set aside about $425,000 to make changes. For the longest time all attention has been focused on the county hiring Kansas Holistic Defenders to fulfill the county’s responsibilities related to indigent defense.

Then a second group, including some attorneys on the current panel, came forward with an unsolicited, competing proposal. That action sparked a question that probably should have been sparked much earlier: Why hasn’t the county put out a request for proposals asking any entity interested in providing such services to step forward?

Then, another question was sparked: Is it appropriate that one of the lead organizers of Kansas Holistic Defenders was both a campaign volunteer and a campaign donor for County Commission candidates Shannon Portillo and Shannon Reid, who now comprise two-thirds of the commission that will be awarding this contract?

Then, a third question emerged: Is it appropriate for that organizer of Kansas Holistic Defenders to serve on a county committee tasked with advising commissioners on how to revamp the indigent defense system? In fairness, it appears that the committee also has included members of the new competing group as well.

Let’s answer those questions in reverse order. The county committee situation is undesirable. It is not too much to ask that people wanting to do business with the county should not serve on committees that are advising the county about those various business matters. That toothpaste can’t be put back in the tube, but the county should guard against such situations in the future.

On the second question, it would be hasty to conclude that Commissioners Portillo and Reid have done something wrong by expressing interest in a group that has been proposed by a campaign donor. Campaign donors are allowed to have good ideas just like anyone else. But it is also important to acknowledge that it creates a bad perception for some. It is easy to understand how some members of the public would look at this and wonder if there is back-room dealing.

Such perceptions are important because they go a long way in determining trust levels between the public and government. Every elected official has a duty to build the public’s trust. It is critical in today’s environment, as lack of trust in government is pervasive and potentially catastrophic. See the high number of unvaccinated people and the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 for examples of the problems a lack of trust in government causes. Fortunately, Douglas County can help rebuild trust by simply hitting the reset button on this indignant defense process and proving to the public that it is open to all options.

And finally, the last question is the easiest to answer. Should the county issue a request for proposals? Of course. The county is essentially hiring a vendor. When you hire a vendor with public money, you shop around. That should be well understood by public officials at this point.

Remember it this way, if you will: If you are spending your own personal money and don’t want to shop around, that’s a prerogative. If you are spending the public’s money and don’t want to shop around, that’s a problem.

The county should fix that problem this week.

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