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During the past four decades, King County’s fiercely independent public-defense system has been the envy of the nation. Public defenders helped form innovative local drug and mental-health courts, and kicked and yelled until Seattle ended a plan in 2010 to build an unnecessary new jail for $200 million.

That independence has been jeopardized by the recent restructuring of the public-defense system. Instead of working for independent nonprofits, public defenders are now King County employees, answering to the executive.

A vote for King County Charter Amendment 1 on the Nov. 5 ballot will preserve their independent voice. The amendment adds a layer of political insulation between the public defenders and the elected executive and council, and it empowers the new Department of Public Defense to advocate for reforms in the criminal-justice system.

In less progressive corners of the state and nation, public defense is treated as a luxury, or even a nuisance, rather than a right protected by the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright.

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To guard against such political or financial meddling, King County Charter Amendment 1 creates an independent advisory board, and trusts the board to monitor equity and social-justice issues. It also ensures the chief public defender, who will serve a four-year term concurrent with the King County Prosecutor’s term, could be fired only for cause.

There is no organized opposition to the measure.

Vote yes on King County Charter Amendment 1.

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