Sheldon bill to protect resources for ‘truly indigent’ passes Senate

20140211_LegWA_0527scToday the Senate approved a measure that would help counties reduce unnecessary costs associated with indigent defense, while still upholding a person’s constitutional right to counsel.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Tim Sheldon, would put more responsibility on defendants to prove that they don’t have adequate assets to contribute to their defense costs.

Because there is no process in place to fully evaluate a defendant’s true financial standing when a court-appointed attorney is requested, counties are left to absorb the costs of providing public defense.

“There should be a better way to determine if someone can contribute to their defense – if not fully, then perhaps partially contribute – and that’s what I’m addressing with my measure,” said Sheldon, D-Potlatch.

“Unfortunately, some people on public assistance have cars, stocks, mutual funds, boats, just to name a few, and all of those things could help pay for some or all of the cost of their counsel. Instead, the burden is left to the responsibility of the county and ultimately the taxpayers.

“Right now, counties and cities are experiencing abnormally high indigent defense costs and struggle to find the necessary resources to provide a quality defense for all of the people who request it. By requiring partial or full payment from the individuals who can afford it, we are protecting resources for those who are truly indigent and cannot afford defense costs – and that’s what this bill is really all about.”

Senate Bill 5020 was introduced last year, but the state Office of Public Defense requested more time to do additional research and Sheldon said the delay ultimately resulted in a stronger bill. As outlined in the measure, OPD would offer training for counties and cities to help establish new procedures to better screen those requesting public counsel.

The measure passed the Senate with a 27-20 vote and now moves to the House of Representatives for consideration.