Report: State should pay for indigent legal counsel

A subcommittee examining how indigents are provided legal counsel in rural Nevada says it’s time for the state to step up and fully fund the Nevada public defender’s office so it can provide services statewide.

In fact, the panel appointed by the Supreme Court and headed by Carson District Judge Todd Russell and former state Public Defender Diane Crow questioned whether the state can legally dump the responsibility for providing public defenders on the counties.

“Of major concern to the subcommittee is that the state of Nevada has chosen to place the majority of funding for indigent defense upon the counties when this is a state constitutionally mandated service,” its report to the high court said. “This has placed a significant burden on the counties.”

As a result, according to the subcommittee report, there’s no uniformity in how the different counties handle indigent legal representation. Some including Carson City use the Nevada State Public Defender’s office. Some created a county public defender’s office and others contract with private lawyers.

Those lawyers are paid everything from $47,000 per year in Esmeralda County to $196,000 per year in Douglas and their annual case loads range from 597 per lawyer in Pershing County to just 136 in Mineral.

The recommendations don’t cover Clark and Washoe counties which each have their own public defender’s office.

The report calls for “a well-funded program by the state of Nevada that would provide for uniformity as to the case numbers assigned to such counsel and uniformity as to the services being provided.”

“Whether the state of Nevada can delegate this task to its constituent counties without any financial subsidy presents an interesting legal question,” the report states.

“The subcommittee uniformly agrees that the state’s ‘unfunded mandate’ results in an unfair financial burden on Nevada’s counties and that it could unnecessarily result in less effective legal representation for indigent people in some counties. The subcommittee uniformly agrees that funding needs to be addressed and rectified by the Nevada State Legislature.”

The report calls on the state to “fully fund the constitutional requirement of providing indigent defense to the rural counties and take the financial pressure off of the counties.” It did not estimate what that might cost the state.

The Supreme Court has scheduled a Dec. 4 hearing in Las Vegas to review the recommendations.


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