On Monday, the Legislatures convenes in Olympia for its 2018 session. Representing Pierce County, I will join colleagues from around Washington on behalf of county interests.
In addition to advocating for our various priorities, we’re asking the Legislature to put an end to unfunded mandates affecting all of us — laws that increase costs for county governments, without provision of revenue to pay for it.
Perhaps the largest unfunded mandate is within our criminal justice system.
You may have noticed while watching “Law and Order” or some other crime drama that local prosecutors identify themselves in court as “representing the State.” That’s literally true.
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The functions of the criminal justice system are carried out by counties at the local level, on behalf of Washington state. However, the state retains responsibility for protecting our civil rights under the U.S. Constitution.
The 6th Amendment provides several guarantees to ensure a fair trial for the accused in “all criminal prosecutions.” Among those rights is “the assistance of counsel for his defense.”
The U.S. Supreme Court’s Gideon decision further clarified this right was guaranteed by the states. Our Legislature agrees, finding in 1989, and reaffirmed in 2005, “that effective legal representation must be provided for indigent persons and persons who are indigent and able to contribute, consistent with the constitutional requirements of fairness, equal protection, and due process in all cases where the right to counsel attaches.”
Unfortunately, that commitment hasn’t found its way from state dollars into county budgets. Washington is near the bottom in funding trial court public defense, and the comparisons are ugly:
Twenty three states fully fund trial court public defense carried out at the local level. Most states provide more than 50 percent of the cost. In Washington, however, the Legislature has appropriated just 4 percent of the cost, leaving counties with the rest of the tab, regardless of ability to pay.
If you add up every expense for providing criminal justice services, Washington is dead last in state support. That is unacceptable, and the problem only seems to be getting worse.
Both the state Supreme Court and Legislature have enacted new caseload standards for public defenders that seem like reasonable assurances for access to justice. Counties have diligently implemented those standards, but the cost has skyrocketed.
Since 2006 there’s been a $50 million increase (56 percent) in counties’ costs for providing trial court public defense services. In Pierce County, we’ve budgeted almost $20 million for assigned counsel in 2018, up from $13 million in 2006.
Pierce County is disproportionately burdened with more felony charges than any other county, including King, but without the tax base to match. That means handling more cases with half the judges, prosecutors and public defenders.
Every dollar out of our county general fund that we must spend on the Department of Assigned Counsel is a dollar we don’t have to put more deputies on the street, provide behavioral health services, house the homeless or invest in critical infrastructure.
To continue guaranteeing equal access to justice for all Washington residents, counties need to see these mandates funded.
It requires immediate action this session. We can’t do our job unless the Legislature does its.
Derek Young, D-Gig Harbor, represents the 7th District on the Pierce County Council. He co-chairs the Legislative Steering Committee of the Washington State Association of Counties.