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Originally published February 19, 2013 at 4:32 PM | Page modified February 19, 2013 at 5:03 PM

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Op-ed: Do not break King County’s system of public defense

Changing King County’s public-defense system from nonprofit law offices to an in-house agency is unwise and unnecessary, according to guest columnists Felix G. Luna and Jeffery Robinson

Special to The Times

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KING County Executive Dow Constantine, usually known for an efficient, pragmatic approach to governing in a time of resource scarcity, is making an uncharacteristic mistake.

On Friday, Constantine proposed transforming King County’s highly regarded public-defense system of nonprofit law offices into an in-house county agency. Our system has served the county and its residents well for decades at a reasonable and predictable cost. This change is unwise and unnecessary.

It is up to the County Council to protect King County from the fiscal risk and the threat to high-quality public-defense services presented by this proposal.

Constantine has said that scrapping our nationally respected model is necessary because the Washington state Supreme Court recently held that defender employees are entitled to the same benefits as county prosecutors, the people on the other side of the courtroom from defenders.

Setting aside the court’s decision, it’s just good policy that prosecutors and defenders have the same benefits. The quality of justice is advanced when both can recruit and retain talented, dedicated staff. The county can provide the same benefits to prosecutors and defenders, without losing all the advantages the independent offices have provided for more than four decades.

Multiple independent defender offices provide significant advantages. First, the county will have to spend between $5 million to $13 million on transition costs.

Currently when two or more people are charged with the same crime, multiple agencies allow each person to receive conflict-free representation, significantly reducing the need to hire private lawyers.

Everyone should understand that there is no public-defender exception to the laws governing conflicts of interest. Multiple-defendant cases pending at the time of the merger will cause immediate conflicts of interest that did not exist because of the current system of separate agencies.

How will those conflicts be resolved, and at what cost? After a merger, these conflicts would almost certainly require assigning many more cases to private lawyers. More conflicts equal more expense.

Most important, independence means that defenders, like the independently elected prosecutor and judges, can publicly advocate for necessary resources and policy reforms that improve the quality of justice for everyone.

Our independent defenders have developed and advocated for reforms that reduced criminal-justice costs and increased fairness in our justice system. If defenders are an in-house government agency, any elected county executive would be able to silence defenders. No county executive should be able to control the voice of the defenders in this way. This explains why genuine independence for public defenders is the first of the American Bar Association’s Ten Principles for a Public Defense Delivery System.

Don’t forget, this is about justice. We know that a weakened public-defense system leaves low-income people vulnerable.

This is especially critical in communities of color when our justice system is now widely understood to impact these communities disproportionately.

Michelle Alexander, author of the best-selling book “The New Jim Crow,” recently told a gathering of the King County Bar Association that King County’s defenders are among the few in the country who have been effective in reforming costly and ineffective aspects of our justice system that have contributed to racial inequality. As Alexander said, when you have such a public-defense system, make sure you keep it.

It’s easy to get public defense wrong. There are examples of that all over the country, from Grant County here in Washington to many other states where defenders have no meaningful protection from direct government control.

It is rare to get it right, but King County has managed that for decades, to national acclaim.

Our message to Executive Constantine and the County Council: It’s not broken now. Please don’t break it.

Felix G. Luna, left, a partner at Peterson Wampold Rosato Luna Knopp, serves on the The Defender Association’s board. Jeffery Robinson, shareholder at Schroeter, Goldmark and Bender, is a former public defender.

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