Judges seek additional defender
District judges defended the system Douglas County uses to provide legal representation to indigent defendants.
But they said the four attorneys currently under contract with the county are overwhelmed, and they need a fifth attorney to handle the caseload.
“As you are aware, counties in Nevada are being sued over public defender issues,” District Judge Tod Young told commissioners on Wednesday. “We believe we have a very constitutionally solid and sound process for providing indigent defense, as we are obligated to do.”
Young said he sits on the Supreme Court’s Indigent Defense Commission where members refer to all of the counties outside Clark and Washoe as rurals.
“I object to being lumped in with every other rural county,” he said. “We are very cognizant of the quality of legal representation that appears in our courts.”
Young said the defense attorneys are in the courts nearly five days a week.
A proposal at the state level to take over indigent representation wouldn’t save the county money, District Judge Tom Gregory said.
“We will still pay for it,” he said. “But we have no control over who the advocates are or whether they even have an office in the county.”
Gregory said the defense attorneys presently have an average of 254 cases each. An additional attorney would reduce that to around 200 cases.
The two justices of the peace are generally responsible for appointing a public defender, and then only after they’ve determined if a defendant is actually indigent. The Supreme Court defines indigent as someone making twice the poverty level
Tahoe Township Justice of the Peace Richard Glasson said that if someone who isn’t indigent gets past them, the public defenders will let the judges know.
“Nobody who shouldn’t be getting a public defender gets one,” he said.
East Fork Justice of the Peace Cassandra Jones said Douglas is one of the few jurisdictions that seeks reimbursement for providing an attorney.
“We’re recouping some of that cost in sentencing,” she said.
East Fork Justice Court is one of the busiest in the state and has qualified for a second justice of the peace for 20 years.
Jones said she isn’t seeking another judge, but does need an executive judicial assistant.
She said the current year is the first the court has seen the same number of civil and criminal cases.
“Civil cases take a tremendous amount of bandwidth,” she said. “People need to feel like they’ve received justice. They need to feel they’ve been heard.”
An assistant would cost $54,000, according to the courts.
The courts fall under the county’s general fund, along with the sheriff’s office and the district attorney’s office.
Court Administrator Bobbie Williams told commissioners that she appreciated being allowed to provide actual numbers for her budget, something Young echoed.
“The prior county budget person refused to let us submit that budget,” Young said. “We were told ‘just give us last year’s budget and we’ll augment.’”
Williams pointed out that for years the budget for interpreters has been $500 a year. With interpreters paid anywhere from $60-344 an hour, that budget can be exceeded by a single trial.
Chief Financial Officer Terri Willoughby said the departments were instructed to use real numbers to develop an actual budget.
Williams said she is investigating ways to establish contract interpreters so there is a set rate.
“I think that would save money in the long run,” she said.