Spokane County Public Defender Proposes New Department to Handle Conflict Cases, Saving Taxpayer Expenses

Colin Charbonneau, the public defender of Spokane County, is advocating for the establishment of a new department within his office dedicated to handling cases that present conflicts of interest. This proposal aims to streamline legal representation for defendants and reduce the financial burden on the county, which currently outsources such cases to private law firms. With an estimated annual saving of at least $250,000, Charbonneau emphasizes the potential benefits of the initiative, including improved legal representation and a reduced risk of lawsuits against the county. While the proposal has garnered initial interest from Spokane County commissioners, further details are required before formal approval can be granted.

Background and Context:

In Spokane County, the public defender’s office is responsible for representing the majority of individuals facing potential incarceration who lack the means to hire a private attorney. However, conflicts of interest occasionally arise, necessitating the outsourcing of cases to other legal professionals. These conflicts may arise from various factors, such as past client relationships or multiple defendants involved in the same crime. Presently, the county relies on private attorneys to handle such cases, incurring significant expenses that can exceed the costs of managing cases internally.

Colin Charbonneau’s Proposal:

Charbonneau’s proposal entails the transfer of two attorneys from the public defender’s office to the new conflict department, thus ensuring that the existing workload is not compromised. This reorganization is intended to bolster legal representation for defendants, especially in complex cases where conflicts of interest arise for both the public defender’s office and the existing counsel for the defense department. By handling these cases in-house, Spokane County stands to save substantial funds that would otherwise be spent on private attorneys. Charbonneau emphasizes that the current system of outsourcing cases to private lawyers is not only expensive but can also lead to concerns about the quality of representation.

Financial and Legal Implications:

The financial benefits of establishing the new conflict department are significant, with the county having spent over $3 million on conflict cases over the past eight years. Moreover, the costs associated with private attorneys often surpass what would be expended on managing cases internally, raising concerns about the value for money. Charbonneau further underscores the challenges of securing proficient attorneys willing to represent indigent defendants, pointing out that experienced private lawyers might not find the compensation offered for such cases worthwhile. Additionally, the potential for improved legal representation is expected to minimize the county’s exposure to lawsuits, ultimately contributing to a more efficient and equitable legal system.

County Commissioners’ Perspectives:

While the proposal has received a favorable reception from Spokane County commissioners, they have expressed the need for a more comprehensive understanding of the logistical and operational aspects of the proposed conflict department. The commissioners emphasize the importance of maximizing the current resources and reducing reliance on external legal counsel. Their cautious optimism highlights the necessity of a thorough evaluation and planning process to ensure the seamless implementation of the proposed department.

The initiative to establish a specialized conflict department within the Spokane County public defender’s office represents a proactive step toward enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of legal representation for indigent defendants. By addressing conflicts of interest internally and curbing the reliance on expensive private attorneys, the proposed department not only offers substantial cost savings but also promises to elevate the overall quality of legal defense services. With the county commissioners expressing interest in exploring the proposal further, Spokane County is poised to reinforce its commitment to equitable and accessible legal representation for all.

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