Douglas County hires nonprofit to establish indigent defense office for misdemeanors

‘Misdemeanors are not minor insofar as the effect that they have on someone’s life,’ the nonprofit’s executive director says

By: - November 18, 2021 10:30 am

The Douglas County Commission selected a new nonprofit to establish an indigent defense program for low-income residents charged with misdemeanors. (Feb. 12, 2021, photo by Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

LAWRENCE — Douglas County will hire a Lawrence nonprofit to establish a public defender office for those facing misdemeanors in district court, replacing a panel of attorneys who are currently appointed to handle a host of cases.

In Kansas, a state board pays for indigent defense for those accused of felonies who can’t afford a layer. For misdemeanors, counties are left to fund the service.

For the better part of a year, Douglas County has been studying indigent defense and how it can address the racial disparities in its justice system after the nonprofit, Kansas Holistic Defenders, approached county commissioners this spring with a proposal to establish an institutional indigent defense office

The three-member Douglas County Commission voted unanimously Wednesday night after two hours of public testimony to select Kansas Holistic Defenders over a consortium of private defense attorneys who currently take cases through the existing panel system.

Kansas Holistic Defenders proposed a model — salaried public defenders, an investigator to help find evidence and a client advocate to help with the “collateral consequences” of being arrested — that they say is meant to help minimize disparities in the justice system.

“If we have an office that operates on the holistic model and that pays a lot of attention to those, we can then start to push back against those, and those are some of the areas where we see the starkest differences,” Sam Allison-Natale, executive director of Kansas Holistic Defenders, told the commission Wednesday night.

Kansas Holistic Defenders proposed a $425,000 budget from the county to hire three attorneys and additional support staff. The competing group, Douglas County Defense Services, would have charged $525,000 for a group of seven attorneys to take cases in addition to their private practice.

The most common misdemeanors in Douglas County, Allison-Natale said, are driving under the influence, domestic battery and drug offenses.

And while Black residents only accounted for 4% of the county’s population in 2019, they made up 16% of misdemeanor bookings into Douglas County jail, Allison-Natale told commissioners. While misdemeanors, by definition, are not as severe as felonies, he said they’re significant and can have detrimental effects on people’s lives.

“Misdemeanors are not minor insofar as the effect that they have on someone’s life,” Allison-Natale said. “Everyone who’s got a really long criminal record was once a person who had no criminal record, and the first time they got a criminal record, most of the time it was a misdemeanor, so how that misdemeanor was handled then trickles down to every other future interaction they’re going to have.”

If a person convicted of a misdemeanor goes on to commit a felony, their prior record could enhance their sentence.

And he said defendants can face future challenges finding employment and housing. For people of color, those side effects are usually heightened.

Neither organization gave a presentation Wednesday, but commissioners were permitted to ask questions and demonstrated a clear preference for Kansas Holistic Defenders, which was supported by the ACLU and tied itself to the model followed by the federal public defender representing defendants in U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas.

Commissioners raised a number of concerns about the consortium of attorneys, Douglas County Defense Services, including what they believed to be a $400 fee the group would ask defendants, already declared to be eligible for free legal representation because of their income, to pay.

Earlier in the week, commission chairwoman Shannon Portillo, told Kansas Reflector she worried that fee would encourage defendants to represent themselves and could undermine the county’s goal of providing high quality public defense.

Matthew Clarke, who presented on behalf of DCDS, said that was not a fee the attorneys would charge clients. He said Kansas law requires that courts order defendants to reimburse expenses related to prosecution.

Clarke said the $400 was a suggestion outside of the group’s proposal for what he thought should be the highest allowable amount the court would charge indigent defendants after conviction.

He said the group also suggested additional funding for drug and alcohol abuse evaluations. He said defendants get hung up in the system waiting for those.

“Anything that we can do to remove barriers from people … is what we want to do,” he said. “You’re not going to get any argument about that from any of us.”

DCDS’ proposal was more expensive, but Clarke touted the group’s experience representing defendants as private defense attorneys appointed through the current panel system. He said the group’s proposal would minimize conflicts of interest — defense attorneys in the same office can’t, for example, represent co-defendants — because they are a consortium of independent lawyers.

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she’s covered state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City, and most recently was City Hall reporter for The Kansas City Star.