BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A national civil liberties group has brought its fight to overhaul the criminal defense system for low-income defendants to Idaho with a lawsuit that says the state hasn’t done enough to make sure poor people are being fairly represented.
The American Civil Liberties Union contends state officials have known for several years that overwhelming case loads, underfunded budgets and a patchwork system that varies county by county prevent defendants from receiving adequate legal representation guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
Idaho officials, including the governor and attorney general, declined to comment Wednesday on a case that continues a national push for the ACLU.
“Public defense is really central to our criminal justice system,” said Jason Williamson, an attorney for the national ACLU’s criminal law reform project. “And to the extent that our public defense system is broken, the entire system is broken.”
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The organization has brought similar lawsuits in several states recently, reaching settlements in New York and Washington after the U.S. Justice Department intervened on the ACLU’s behalf and state officials agreed to sweeping reforms.
The Idaho case names four plaintiffs who say they’ve spent months in jail without speaking to their court-appointed attorneys or that their cases weren’t properly reviewed, and the organization is seeking class-action status so the case will apply to all low-income defendants in the state. The filing asks a state judge to order Idaho officials to implement a better system.
Idaho’s public defender system has been at focus recently, since a report from the National Legal Aid and Defender Association found in 2010 that indigent defendants facing criminal trials weren’t getting adequate representation. The problems included a lack of communication between court-appointed lawyers and their clients, poor or nonexistent legal investigations, deficient funding and a lack of oversight.
Lawmakers and a special Criminal Justice Commission have examined the issue, but the ACLU says meaningful changes haven’t been made.
For their part, legislators created the Idaho Public Defense Commission last year. Members have been asked to create standards, training programs and a data collection system and to keep lawmakers informed about any problems.
The ACLU says that’s not enough. “Astoundingly, the State failed yet again in the recently concluded 2015 legislative session to fund or improve its public-defense system,” ACLU-Idaho attorney Ritchie Eppink wrote in the lawsuit.
Members of the Public Defense Commission were named as defendants in the lawsuit, along with Republican Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and the state. Ian Thompson, the commission’s executive director, declined to comment on the case, though he said members will discuss it during a meeting Thursday.
This story has been corrected to show the lawsuit was filed in state court. An earlier version said it had been filed in federal court. It also corrects the day of the week to Wednesday. An earlier version said Monday.