Article updated at 11:09 p.m. Wednesday:
After hours of questions and public comments about two competing proposals for criminal defense services, the Douglas County Commission on Wednesday selected Kansas Holistic Defenders.
The decision comes on the heels of many concerns from those who supported KHD and those who supported Douglas County Defense Services, commissioners themselves, and Douglas County District Court judges. Some public commenters Wednesday implored the commission not to move forward with a decision just yet.
Douglas County commissioners received one proposal from nonprofit Kansas Holistic Defenders (KHD) in March, and one from a group called Douglas County Defense Services (DCDS), submitted Oct. 1. Both groups sought to contract with the county to provide criminal defense services for people charged with misdemeanors who cannot pay an attorney and need one appointed for them.
After asking their own rounds of questions of KHD Director Sam Allison-Natale and Lawrence attorney Michael Clarke, who submitted the DCDS proposal, commissioners heard from nearly 30 public commenters about the two proposals.
The first two who spoke were attorneys who would have contracted with DCDS, Blake Glover and Hatem Chahine.
Glover noted in his comments that part of the goal of an institutional misdemeanor defender office was to meet with clients before they have their first appearances in court.
Those hearings are when judges set bond, and historically they have been when those who qualify are appointed counsel. That means there’s no attorney to argue on their behalf during that hearing, and oftentimes when defendants do attempt to speak about their bond conditions, they’re warned that anything they say can be used against them.
However, Glover said that through local efforts made to lower the jail population and reduce mass incarceration, barring exceptional circumstances, “virtually no one” is held in jail before their first appearances for misdemeanor charges in district court cases.
Chahine took issue with the county’s process to select the proposal. He began: “All we wanted was a deadline.”
“Since there was no deadline, commissioners, since there was no RFP (request for proposals), why not just called Mr. Natale’s proposal exactly what it is, which is a no-bid contract?” Chahine said. “It would’ve saved us a lot of time in the room.”
He also asked why it took a “whistleblower” to point out the ties between Allison-Natale and Commission Chair Shannon Portillo and Vice Chair Shannon Reid.
Greg Robinson, speaking during public comment at the commission’s Nov. 10 meeting, raised the point that Allison-Natale volunteered for and donated funds to Portillo’s and Reid’s campaigns. Also, Lawrence attorney Cooper Overstreet, who is a member of the KHD board of directors, ran for Douglas County district attorney in 2020 and campaigned with Portillo and Reid as the “Justice Ticket.”
But several public commenters took issue with the DCDS proposal — particularly with one point. As part of a proposed contract, it recommends that “The County establish a standard attorney fee reimbursement amount, e.g., $400, per case.” Many, particularly supporters of KHD, took that to mean an upfront fee of $400 that defendants would need to pay in order to get services from DCDS.
Clarke clarified that in any case in which a defendant is appointed counsel, at sentencing, the judge decides what fees, if any, the defendant must repay to the county. He suggested that the county put in place a cap of $400 for that reimbursement — not for the individual attorneys to be paid that amount in all cases.
Many who spoke in favor of KHD’s proposal shared personal stories about effects the criminal legal system had in their own lives. They shared various reasons why they believed KHD would better serve those charged with misdemeanors.
Another KHD board member, PJay Carter, said he “was kidnapped by the system” for two federal felonies, but he now holds two degrees and is working toward his Master of Social Work degree.
Clarke had said the board overseeing DCDS would likely only include attorneys, because that’s how law firms function — for example, in an LLC, professional rules don’t allow for a non-attorney to be a partner or owner, he said. “Statutorily, ethically, it’s not permissible.”
Carter said that as a KHD board member, “I would like the, quote-unquote, oversight, management and direction to have more diversity than just the minds of those of our attorneys that we trust our livelihood in, because there’s more to that experience.”
The commission voted unanimously to award misdemeanor services to KHD, and to direct staff to continue conversations about how to support client advocacy services to ensure that they’re not creating an inequity in the system as they’re trying to address inequities in the system, as Commissioner Patrick Kelly put it.
A central element of KHD’s plan is to have a client advocate on staff to help connect clients with resources and handle hurdles that may come up with their jobs, housing and more. Judges had raised concerns that it could create Constitutional inequities if some attorneys, and by extension their clients, had access to services that others did not. That piece will be a continuing conversation between KHD, the commission and the district court judges.
Kelly said his vote during the summer budgeting process to set aside $425,000 for misdemeanor defense was evidence that he believed the system needed to change, but Wednesday’s discussion had made it clearer to him which direction it needed to go.
“It’s hard to see, when you’re in the system, how it might operate better, and so sometimes it’s really good if somebody comes from the outside and says, ‘You know, there’s another way to do this. You might try it,’ and it’s good for us to hear,” Kelly said.
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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 about how the organization aims to improve outcomes and handling of misdemeanor cases in Douglas County.