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Plan to ease caseloads for Washington public defenders could ‘bankrupt’ some counties

The plan would cut caseloads by 70%, but necessitate many more attorneys.

WHATCOM COUNTY, Wash. — Public defenders across Washington are struggling to keep up with their caseloads as burnout is causing many to leave the profession.

A new plan to lighten the load is in the works, but some fear it will come at a huge cost.

In Whatcom County, it’s commonplace for public defenders to handle 70, 80, or even 90 cases at one time.

Many feel the workload simply isn’t sustainable, so there is a movement to cut it, but that could prove very expensive and perhaps not even possible.

Jane Boman has been a public defender in Whatcom County for 12 years. 

Right now, she’s handling about 75 cases, which is low compared to what she’s had to handle in the past. It’s a constant struggle to keep up with it all.

“Because you’re kind of treading water and putting out fires all the time,” Boman said. 

Whatcom County currently employs 27 public defenders. They are assigned to people who can’t afford an attorney on their own and paid for by the government.

The Constitution guarantees that everyone has a right to be represented by an attorney regardless of their ability to pay.

But right now, there are simply too many cases and not enough lawyers

Long hours and heavy workloads have depleted the ranks of public defenders, even the most dedicated like Boman.

“I think I cope well, but I’ve gone through periods where I question if it’s the right thing for me,” she said. “I really love it, but it’s hard.”

A proposal by the Washington State Bar Association would cut caseloads by 70% over the next three years, which was recently approved by its Board of Governors.

The problem is that there will still be the same number of cases.

County and city officials across the state believe they will have to double or even triple their number of public defenders and there is no plan for how to pay for them.

The state only pays 3% of public defender costs.

Franklin County Administrator Mike Gonzalez warns, “This could be what bankrupts smaller counties like ours” and “The system is on the verge of collapse.”

In Whatcom County alone, it would cost an additional $14 million.

“Presently, the money would have to come from the general fund of Whatcom County and I don’t believe that’s going to happen,” said Whatcom County Director of Public Defense Starck Follis. “And I can’t believe it’s going to happen across the state in the other 38 counties.”

The State Supreme Court has the final say as to whether the Bar Association’s proposal will be enacted. No timeline has been announced for its decision.

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