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Inadequate defense for juveniles—the state Office of Public Defense and Grays Harbor

Throughout Washington state, county officials strongly influence the criminal justice system by passing ordinances, establishing policies, selecting program administrators and staff, setting public safety priorities and making funding decisions that directly affect many who come in contact with the law.

Everyone in the United States has a constitutional right to due process and, whether one can afford it or not, to adequate legal defense in court. Children are no exception.

Except, that is, if the child happens to be poor and live in Grays Harbor County.  In Grays Harbor, the County Commissioners, prosecutors, judges, and public defenders who are responsible for establishing a system that protects that constitutional right, have actually produced a system that masquerades as justice, with children the unwitting victims.

On Friday, 14 December 2018, a Superior Court judge denied the state’s motion to end a challenge to the way the juvenile “justice” system operates in Grays Harbor County. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had brought the class action suit against the state and its Office of Public Defense (OPD) in early 2017.

Because the public defender never challenges the standardized bail determination, juveniles spend prolonged and unnecessary amounts of time incarcerated

At issue is the failure of the Office of Public Defense (OPD) a state agency, to monitor and supervise the operation of county public defense systems.  OPD knew for years about violations in Grays Harbor but claimed it lacked the authority to provide meaningful oversight.

The Superior Court judge  has now kicked the case up to the Appeals Court to decide sometime next year.

The lack of independence of public defenders is especially egregious.  According to the ACLU suit, in Grays Harbor “the Juvenile Court judge . . . is intimately involved with the selection process of juvenile public defenders and that judge and [the] prosecutor regularly meet to decide outcomes of juvenile court cases and then inform the public defender of what will happen to her clients.”

According to the suit, “there was great pressure on the Public Defender to not raise certain issues, not to advocate for the clients, and to limit the hearing on each case to a few minutes.”  Public defenders readily complied.  They “rarely if ever objected to onerous and overbroad conditions . . . imposed by the Court. . . . Because the public defender never challenges the standardized bail determination, juveniles spend prolonged and unnecessary amounts of time incarcerated.”

Not that public defenders are carrying out their responsibilities in a professional manner in other areas.  Hired as the “lowest bid” contractor, the “public defender either does not meet with indigent juvenile clients and other witnesses in advance of court hearings, …when the public defender does discuss cases with clients, it is often on the day of the hearing, the afternoon before, or when court is in session for other clients, and may take place in the detention center, in the courtroom, or in the hallway just outside the courtroom where confidentiality is compromised.”

Juvenile defendants are in essence left to understand on their own such complicated issues as pleas, detention alternatives, plea alternatives, and plea consequences. Many juveniles are “spending excessive amounts of time incarcerated pretrial, for contempt, and for probation violations.”

If the ACLU suit is successful, it could lead to reforms across all county Public Defense practices and performance.  And it might restore the meaning of the term “juvenile justice” in Grays Harbor County.

Gary Murrell lives and writes from Grays Harbor County. He is a plaintiff in the ACLU suit.

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