Sheldon bill aims to reduce legal-defense costs for taxpayers

Senator Tim Sheldon

Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch.

OLYMPIA… A bill sponsored by state Sen. Tim Sheldon that reduces legal-defense costs for taxpayers cleared the Senate Law and Justice Committee Thursday, its first important hurdle.

Senate Bill 5232 tackles one of the fastest-rising costs for county governments – the cost of providing legal defense to indigent defendants who cannot afford a lawyer. Legal representation is guaranteed by the constitution and years of legal precedent. However, Sheldon’s measure requires courts to consider whether an indigent defendant has assets that might be used to defray the cost of legal representation.

“At a time when local governments are increasingly strapped, we need to be very careful about the things we require them to do,” said Sheldon, D-Potlatch. “We ought to let judges ask a few hard-nosed questions.”

Sheldon said indigent defense is a growing burden for county governments. In Mason County, 92 percent of superior court defendants and 82 percent of district court defendants were declared indigent in 2013 and eligible for an attorney entirely at taxpayer expense.

When defendants are receiving public assistance, they usually are declared indigent and eligible for a court-appointed attorney at taxpayer expense, Sheldon explained. The bill allows defendants to be declared “indigent and able to contribute.” Many defendants have assets like houses and luxury cars and therefore might be expected to contribute to their own legal defense, he said.

“The bill still protects the truly indigent defendant, but gives the judge the ability to treat people differently when they can pay,” Sheldon said.