As Douglas County’s annual budget hearings began Monday, commissioners heard a funding request from a new nonprofit criminal defense office.
Sam Allison-Natale, chair of Kansas Holistic Defenders, took questions from commissioners about how the organization aims to improve outcomes and handling of misdemeanor cases in Douglas County.
The state pays for attorneys for “indigent” defendants, or those who are charged with felonies who cannot afford to retain their own attorneys. The county pays for representation for those charged with misdemeanors, so funding for indigent defense already exists within the county’s budget.
Currently, the county’s misdemeanor cases are distributed among a panel of private attorneys who are paid with vouchers. There is no central office of public defenders for Douglas County. That is, in part, the gap the Kansas Holistic Defenders would aim to fill. However, “Appointed counsel will always be necessary to represent clients where the institutional defender already represents a party that would create a conflict of interest,” the organization’s budget documentation says.
The Kansas Holistic Defenders budget presented to the commission asks for $65,000 salaries for each of three attorneys, $55,000 salary for one paralegal, and $45,000 salaries for an investigator and a client advocate, plus an estimate of $85,000 total for benefits and healthcare. Some of its funding would also come from private donations and grants, including a $30,000 matching “challenge” pledge, the budget shows.
Commissioner Shannon Reid asked Allison-Natale to explain what tangible ways the defender’s office could reduce delays in criminal cases.
Allison-Natale said it starts with attorneys’ first contact with clients. Defendants in Douglas County District Court cases are not appointed attorneys prior to their first court appearances, the hearings at which people are formally charged and their bonds are set.
As it functions now, Allison-Natale said, appointed attorneys’ first contacts with their clients may come days or weeks after that first appearance. One reason for that is because a client might not have the same phone number or address, and the attorneys don’t have backup contact information; also, some attorneys expect their clients to reach out to them, Allison-Natale said.
So when the defendants come back to court for a second hearing, it’s common for their attorneys to not know yet how the case will proceed — whether it might be a good case for diversion, whether the prosecutors are going to make a plea offer or whether a case may need to go to trial. There’s almost always at least one continuance, Allison-Natale said.
If the attorneys could make contact before their clients are released from jail, they could ensure they have backup contact information and start making a plan for the case. The same day, the office’s investigator could go collect evidence such as video footage of an incident, Allison-Natale said. That could help expedite cases from the beginning.
In addition, if those being charged had attorneys appointed already who were somewhat familiar with the allegations in the case, that attorney could argue for a lower bond or different bond conditions. That’s a point that has come up in the past in meetings of the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
Commissioner Patrick Kelly asked what the difference would be between the client advocate position and a proposed care coordinator for the county’s criminal justice services, or what attorneys would do for their clients.
Allison-Natale said the client advocate could help with things such as alerting someone’s employer that they won’t be coming to work that day, which could potentially save their job, helping to get back a cellphone that has been seized, making connections to services and helping ensure that families stay housed.
He said those are things that he would do for his clients, but “Do you want me doing it, or do you want to hire somebody who doesn’t have as high of a salary to go out and do that for three attorneys at the same time?”
Allison-Natale told the Times Tuesday morning that he thinks the community and the county government seem ready to update the local indigent defense system.
“We believe that the county will be investing in institutional, holistic public defense because everywhere else it’s been tried, it has been a major success,” he said. “In every jurisdiction that has transitioned from a panel-only system to an institutional defender, none has ever wanted to go back because of the tremendous benefits and efficiencies that come with a full-time defense institution. We have an incredible Federal Defender here in Kansas, and the experience with all that office has done to serve clients, assist private attorneys, and litigate systemic abuses has shown pretty convincingly the benefits of this type of office.”
Allison-Natale said part of the reason the county is able to make the investment in Kansas Holistic Defenders without raising taxes is because the organization has raised the overhead it needs for its office through donations.
However, “The major lesson of public defense in Kansas is that defenders cannot do their job effectively without major government investment, and our office is no different – we cannot open the doors responsibly without the County funding us for 2022,” Allison-Natale wrote in a message to the Times.
In addition, the Governor’s Commission on Racial Justice and Equity — of which Douglas County Commissioner Shannon Portillo is a member — has recommended that counties of this size invest in a public defender office.
During other hearings Monday, Kelly emphasized that the county is looking for things that can be considered one-time, pandemic-related expenditures so it can spend federal COVID-19 funds.
Budget hearings were set to resume Tuesday morning, then continue from 9 a.m. to noon Wednesday and Thursday. Next week, the commission will begin budget deliberations, from 9 a.m. to noon Tuesday through Friday, July 6-9. The remainder of the hearing schedule is available on the county’s website at this link.
The hearings are being streamed over Zoom and uploaded to the county’s YouTube page afterward.
— Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or 785-422-6363.