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Douglas County Commission looks to evaluate competing criminal defense proposals

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With two proposals for local misdemeanor defense offices on the table, Douglas County commissioners voiced some concerns and established a process Wednesday to evaluate their options.

The county received a proposal from nonprofit Kansas Holistic Defenders (KHD) in March, and it established an indigent defense work group in April. Commission Chair Shannon Portillo said Wednesday that KHD Director Sam Allison-Natale was part of that work group, and there was transparency knowing that KHD’s proposal was on the table. 

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On Oct. 1, however, Lawrence attorney Michael Clarke submitted a proposal to the county for a for-profit business called Douglas County Defense Services (DCDS) to handle the same types of cases. 

Portillo said she was concerned because two attorneys who had served on the work group are included in the DCDS proposal. She said neither had mentioned to the work group that they were involved in a competing proposal. 

During the summer budgeting process, commissioners set aside $425,000 to accommodate misdemeanor defense services. That was the amount that KHD sought for its budget. The DCDS proposal seeks $525,000. After commissioners approve their budget each year, they cannot increase the total amount that the county spends, but they can move money from one fund to another. 

It’s a tricky situation for the county — put simply, “There is no established protocol for reviewing proposals outside of the budget cycle and the County did not formally solicit proposals,” according to the meeting agenda. 

County Administrator Sarah Plinsky suggested that commissioners review the indigent defense work group’s report, which is planned to be included in the Nov. 10 meeting agenda. Commissioner Patrick Kelly said he did want to see that report to see what specifics and outcomes the work group is looking for.

Commission Vice Chair Shannon Reid said she’d like to know from both groups about the community stakeholders they’ve engaged in completing their proposals.

“And I just want to be candid and say that I was surprised to see an additional proposal come in so late in the year after having had more than six months of very public conversation, and evolution of the conversation, including in our budget process,” she said. “So I do want to voice that concern and ask for some feedback from both groups.”

Plinsky said staff could also ask DCDS to fill out the budget narrative documents that community partners submit as part of the annual budget process, like KHD’s proposal below. That way commissioners can have more of an “apples to apples” basis of comparison, Plinsky said.

If all goes as planned, commissioners will ask representatives of both KHD and DCDS to come answer questions, similar to what they do in their annual budget hearings, during the Nov. 17 meeting.

Below are the proposals from both groups.

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Kansas Holistic Defenders:

KHD

Douglas County Defense Services:

DCDS

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com or 785-422-6363. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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