House Bill 192 — Public defense system

House Bill 192 — Public defense system

by
Parrish Miller
February 23, 2021

Bill Description: House Bill 192 restructures the system of public defense in Idaho by moving it from a county obligation to one operated and overseen by state and regional boards. 

Rating: -4

Does it create, expand, or enlarge any agency, board, program, function, or activity of government? Conversely, does it eliminate or curtail the size or scope of government?

House Bill 192 implements "a restructured public defense system in this state consisting of the State Board of Public Defense, the Office of the State Chief Public Defender, the District Offices of Public Defense, and the Judicial District Oversight Boards."

The bill converts the existing state public defense commission into the state board of public defense and doubles its membership from nine to 18 people. Eight of the 18 are appointed by the governor. 

The bill also converts the office of state appellate public defender to the office of the state chief public defender. This new position is imbued with a range of new powers, including proposing "rules to be approved and promulgated by the state board of public defense," supervising and monitoring each district office of public defense, ensuring compliance with any rules or standards as set by the board, and bringing "any issues requiring action" before the board.

(-1)

In addition to expanding government in the ways described above, House Bill 192 creates seven new district offices of public defense, located in each of the state's seven judicial districts. Likewise, it creates seven new judicial district oversight boards, one for each of the seven districts. Each district office of public defense will be directed by a district public defender.

The transition away from county governments — whose commissioners, sheriff, and prosecutor are elected by the people — to regional governments operated by unelected bureaucrats, is a troubling and growing trend in Idaho. It is worth noting that multiple bills have been introduced during the 2021 Legislative session to shift power back from regional health districts to the various county commissions. House Bill 192 moves things in the opposite direction, taking power from the counties and creating unaccountable regional governments to supplant an existing function of county governments. 

Adding insult to injury, new language is added requiring each county in the state "to provide suitable and adequate facilities for the district office of public defense, including the facilities and equipment necessary to make the space provided functional for its intended use."

(-1)

Does it increase government spending (for objectionable purposes) or debt? Conversely, does it decrease government spending or debt?

To fund all of these new offices and boards, House Bill 192 reduces tax distributions to counties by nearly $28 million, according to the estimate in the bill's fiscal note. These reductions are accomplished by cutting tax distribution percentages, and they are estimated to be equal to the total amount spent on public defense by all of Idaho's 44 counties. The cuts do not reflect the actual expenses of specific counties, however, so more fiscally conservative and less regulated counties will likely see net losses while counties that embrace overcriminalization and excessive regulation will likely come out ahead. Because of this shift, some counties may have more money to spend while others will be forced to increase taxes just to break even. 

Due to the state having fewer fiscal constraints than the counties, it is likely that the costs of providing public defense would increase more under this new, centralized system than it would under the existing county-based system. 

(-1)

Does it in any way restrict public access to information related to government activity or otherwise compromise government transparency or accountability? Conversely, does it increase public access to information related to government activity or increase government transparency or accountability?

Counties, especially counties with smaller populations, are more accountable to the people for their spending than is the state, which makes moving one of the more significant duties of counties to the state a decrease in accountability.

Under current law, each county's board of county commissioners has the right to appoint and set the qualifications and pay of the public defender. They can also opt to participate in a joint office of public defender with another county, or they can outsource by contracting with a private defense attorney. These provisions are all deleted by House Bill 192.

In addition to removing accountability for spending, which will likely increase costs, this bill removes accountability in a broader sense because elected county commissioners have to represent the will of the people in a way state and regional board appointees do not. 

(-1)

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