December 12, 2011

Washington tries to limit sex offender legal bills

12-12-2011 Washington:

TACOMA, Wash. (AP) — State government pays an average legal bill of $39,000 a year for every sex offender locked up on McNeil Island.

The cost could become a target for budget cutters in the Legislature. They are reviewing a report released this month by a state courts agency that offers to reduce the $7 million annual cost of defending indigent felons at the Special Commitment Center by up to $1 million.

Gov. Chris Gregoire's administration also is examining ways to reduce legal costs and wants to shift many of them to county governments. And key lawmakers have ideas they won't yet divulge.

The various proposals could become alternatives or additions to a plan floated in the Legislature to move the nearly 300 sexual predators to the mainland.

"We're spending all of this money on legal services. Legal services are my biggest cost center at the Special Commitment Center," said the facility's CEO, Kelly Cunningham.

"We've put a lot of effort over the last three years in getting a handle on legal expenses," Cunningham said. But he still marveled at the expenses of prosecuting and defending a single sex offender at a recent court-ordered mediation session: "I'm looking around the room saying, 'I'm paying for six attorneys for this.'"

What's more, state government doesn't know how much it is paying for any individual offender. Until recently, legal firms didn't itemize their bills to the state. Cunningham said it's too soon to know whether a new rule this year requiring itemization will provide the clarity that's now missing.

State law requires that trials to commit a sex offender to the center happen within 45 days, but case delays extend that waiting time exponentially. Cunningham said one man sent to the facility in 2000 has just been legally committed, 11 years later.

The center is home to sex offenders whose prison sentences are over, yet they are deemed by a court to be "sexually violent predators" who would pose too high a risk of committing more crimes if free.

The state covers the cost of both prosecuting them and defending those who can't afford the legal fees. Private lawyers bill state government at court-ordered rates of $85 an hour for facing off against the Attorney General's Office or county prosecutors.

Hourly billing is rare in other kinds of public-defense cases, said the Office of Public Defense. And it can add up fast for the more than 60 attorneys in Washington handling the cases.

"Many attorneys only have one or two cases," said Joanne Moore, the office's director appointed by the state Supreme Court. "This means that on a regular basis, individual attorneys may be billing a lot of hours just to learn about the system and to conduct basic research."

The office said in a Dec. 1 report that it could do the defense work cheaper, using a smaller, more specialized group. It suggests paying 23-25 lawyers based on annual contracts instead of hourly rates - or hiring 22 public defenders as state employees.

The idea to hire state employees would be "most efficient if the Legislature decides to locate proceedings at a single court location," the office says. The authors of the report say legislators and judges have suggested such one-stop shopping, presumably near the Special Commitment Center.

Asked by the office for written comments, defense attorneys raised concerns about abandoning hourly rates, about the disruption of upending the defense system and about a single court location.

Hourly rates "discourage a race to the bottom," said one defender of the current payment system, Kenneth Chang of The Defender Association, a nonprofit law firm in King County.

"In this increasingly complex and specialized field, lowering the current standard of competence and installing a system to grant contracts based on the cheapest rates will inevitably decrease the level of representation," Chang told the office.

John Lane, an executive policy adviser to Gregoire, said the system should stay under the authority of the governor, where her budget staff can more easily keep tabs on the spending, rather than move to an independent office led by an appointee of the state Supreme Court.

The Office of Public Defense, though, sees an ethical conflict in having the same agency confine the sex offenders and pay for their prosecution and defense. Responsibility lies with the Department of Social and Health Services for all of those, though this year a part of the agency separate from the Special Commitment Center started paying the legal bills, which Cunningham said reduces the conflict of interest.

On a separate track, Gregoire's administration is pursuing the same goal the defense office suggests: slimming down the cadre of defense lawyers who handle the cases. Officials are putting together a potential request for bids with the aim of having one or two firms and capping the costs they could bill in a given period, according to DSHS.

Gregoire also has proposed shifting more costs to county governments - drawing county representatives to a hearing last week to oppose the idea.

Among other costs, the legislation introduced by Rep. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, would make counties pay for spending that results from delays in the trials that commit the sex offenders to the facility. It could save DSHS $2 million through June 2013.

County prosecutors make the decisions on committing offenders, and Lane said counties should shoulder a minority of the costs.

"We're just limiting and capping what we will actually reimburse for," Lane told lawmakers.

The head of King County prosecutor's sex-predator unit, David Hackett, countered that DSHS should have to pay because it made the early decisions that established how much lawyers could bill.

"It's an abdication of leadership to simply shift those costs to the county," Hackett said.

It's one of several proposals by Gregoire to shift costs to local governments or reduce their share of revenue. Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy was in Olympia last week asking lawmakers not to solve the $1.4 billion state budget shortfall on the backs of counties.

Pierce County committed 45 of the Special Commitment Center's residents. Fourteen others come from Thurston County.. ..Source.. by JORDAN SCHRADER, The News Tribune

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