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Nevada Supreme Court Mandates Sweeping Changes in Indigent Defense Practices
Friday, 04 January 2008 12:57
The Nevada Supreme Court issued an order today (Jan. 4, 2008) mandating sweeping changes in the way legal representation is provided to indigent defendants in criminal cases.

The Supreme Court concluded in the order that "by any reasonable standard, there is currently a crisis in the size of the caseloads for public defenders in Clark County and Washoe County."

The order resulted from the recommendations made in December by the Supreme Court's Indigent Defense Commission, a blue-ribbon panel that spent much of 2007 studying ways to improve services for those who cannot afford to hire their own attorneys. The Commission was chaired by Justice Michael Cherry.

"The Commission did an outstanding job of analyzing Nevada's problems in providing adequate representation for indigent defendants, and crafting reasonable recommendations for the Supreme Court to consider," said Justice Cherry. "With this order, the Supreme Court has dramatically changed the way the justice system will deal with indigent defendants, although there is still work to be done."

The order adopts performance standards for public defenders that will help ensure that defendants are provided appropriate representation, but stopped short of setting caseload standards for public defenders, which would require additional attorneys in Clark and Washoe counties.

The vote was 4-3 to delay consideration until after weighted caseload studies are conducted of the public defender offices in Clark and Washoe Counties.

The three justices believed "that any weighted caseload study will confirm the validity of the Commission's recommendations for the implementation of caseload standards" and advocated that such standards be adopted effective July 1.

"While the vote was not unanimous on that one issue, the seven justices certainly are united in our belief that indigent defendants in Nevada courts deserve competent and diligent legal representation," said Chief Justice William Maupin. "That is simply vital to maintain the integrity and effectiveness of our criminal justice system."

The order noted that the average caseload for a public defender in Clark County was 364 felony and gross misdemeanor cases and in Washoe County it was 327 cases, while the National Legal Aid and Defender Association has set the recommended caseload standard at 150 cases.

The Supreme Court set a July 15 deadline for the completion of the studies, which both counties have agreed to fund. The Nevada State Public Defender's Office already is collecting data toward such a study.

A hearing to consider the studies and implementation of caseload standards is scheduled for Sept. 5 at 2 p.m.

At that hearing, the Supreme Court will also consider a recommendation by the Indigent Defense Commission that indigent defendants in all counties - other than Clark, Washoe, and Elko - be represented by the Nevada State Public Defender’,s Office. The Commission also recommended that the state office be funded entirely by the state general fund. Currently, county governments fund 80 percent of the cost for defense services they receive.

The Supreme Court also:
  • Set standards for determining whether a defendant is entitled to an appointed attorney, including a"more rigorous screening process to determine if their particular circumstances, including seriousness of charges being faces, monthly expenses, and local private counsel rates, would result in a substantial hardship were they to seek to retain private counsel."
  • Declared that judges should not be involved in the appointment of defense attorneys who represent indigent defendants in their courts, and ordered that each judicial submit plans by May 1 to exclude judges from the process.
  • Ordered that statistics be reported on the services provided to indigent defendants, including data regarding age, gender, race, and ethnicity. The Administrative Office of the Courts is charged with collecting the standardized information.
  • Ordered the creation of a permanent statewide commission for the oversight of indigent defense. The commissioners would be appointed by the Supreme Court with the advice of the Indigent Defense Commission.
  • Order Concerning Representation of Indigent Defendants
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