A good defense isn’t just the best offense, it’s also a right guaranteed to defendants in the Constitution.
On Thursday, Douglas County commissioners voted to continue the county's indigent defense services for another year.
The program costs around $1.7 million a year, of which the county’s annual contribution is capped at $875,155.
Neither County Manager Patrick Cates nor program coordinator Derrick Lopez recommended turning the program over to the state.
However, Lopez said that the Nevada Public Defender's Office would agree to represent clients making appeals to higher courts without cost, which would remove some of the burden from the contract attorneys.
A challenge to the constitutionality of how rural counties handle providing legal counsel to those who cannot afford an attorney was filed in 2018. Until 2021, those services were overseen by the district courts.
In a 2020 settlement, several new requirements were established to ensure the counties were properly handling defense services.
The following Legislature approved additional regulations in 2021 that increased counties’ requirements, including moving oversight from the district courts to the counties.
The law also increased the reporting requirements and contract standards, according to County Manager Patrick Cates.
County commissioners approved a new plan on Sept. 16, 2021, that tried to maintain the structure established by the district court but shifting it to the county manager’s office.
Indigent Defense Coordinator Derrick Lopez was hired to oversee the program. However, some long-time defense attorneys canceled their contracts, citing a lack of pay increases.
The program added an administrative assistant in June.
Cates said that the current program has been running for around a year and is seeking guidance from commissioners on how the county should proceed for next year.
Besides leaving the program alone, commissioners could shift from contract attorneys to hiring them as county employees.
That would include a manager, support staff and four attorneys, but would create a greater need for counsels from outside the pool to handle cases where there are conflicts of interest.
Another option would be to turn the whole thing over to the Nevada Public Defender’s Office. Should the county decide to do that, the state would open an office in the county. The deadline to inform the state is Nov. 1.
None of the options would save the county any money, Cates said.
“The guaranteed maximum contribution defined in state law limits the financial commitment by the county,” Cates said. “Given this, cost is not a primary factor in this decision. The board should consider whether they wish to retain county control of the program.”
Cates said turning the program over to the state would eliminate any control over funding or structure of the department. He’s not recommending that happen. The state handled indigent defense until the early 1990s, when Douglas implemented its contract attorney system under the courts.
“A fully contracted program, as we have now, allows the county to retain authority, but still have limited oversight over the functions of private attorneys,” Cates said. “However, the increase in contract costs and challenges in recruiting contract attorneys causes concerns for the future costs and stability of this program.”
County commissioners met 10 a.m. at the Douglas County Courthouse, 1616 Eighth St., Minden.