After lawsuits, reports found Idaho’s public defense system was failing, a new office offers hope
After reports of overworked public defenders and years of lawsuits against the state claiming inadequate public defense for those in the criminal justice system, Idaho’s new state agency for public defense is in its early stages of formation to help.
On Sept. 20, Idaho Gov. Brad Little’s office announced it had appointed Eric Fredericksen as the state public defender, a new position created during the 2023 legislative session.
In April, Little signed House Bill 236, which eliminates the Public Defense Commission at the start of fiscal year 2025, and in its place establishes the Office of State Public Defender, the office Fredericksen will lead.
The bill was created following the passage of House Bill 735 in 2022, which changed the way public defense is funded in Idaho. Under the new law, the state will take over the cost of public defense from the counties starting October 2024. At the same time, the legislation lowers county property taxes by the same amount that counties used to pay for public defense.
Fredericksen’s first day as state public defender was Sept. 25, and he will serve a four-year term at the new office.
Fredericksen has more than 20 years of experience of practicing law in Idaho. Previous to his appointment, he had served as the state appellate public defender since 2016, overseeing legal staff that handles appeals for indigent defendants who have been convicted of felonies. From 2019 until July, Fredericksen was also the chairman of the Idaho Criminal Justice Commission.
“I’m incredibly excited,” Fredericksen said about his new position. “I’m a true believer in the Constitution and right to counsel. Our goal is to work with counties during this transition.”
With the creation of a large state agency, Fredericksen said he is immediately working on a budget, creating a benefits package for employees, and meeting with public defenders to discuss the changes.
“I’ve been traveling around the state to meet public defenders to explain the system and discuss the improvements that will be made to an already excellent public defense system,” he said.
Here’s a look at why the office was created, and what Fredericksen plans to achieve under the new office.
Timeline of the transformation in Idaho’s public defense system
The Office of State Public Defender has been in development for over a decade, Fredericksen said, and it was established in response to long-standing challenges in the public defense system.
In 2010, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association released a report finding that Idaho falls short of its constitutional duty, which in the Sixth Amendment states that individuals facing criminal charges have the right to legal representation if they cannot afford a lawyer.
The report also pointed to issues such as highly overburdened public defenders, resulting in some defendants meeting their lawyers only in court and feeling pressured to accept plea deals instead of going to trial, the Spokesman Review previously reported.
The state of Idaho established the Public Defense Commission in 2014, with the goal to “collect data, support compliance with standards, provide training, and administer grants to achieve fair and just representation of the accused.”
But in 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit against the state of Idaho alleging that the state had failed to fix its public defense system.
The lawsuit, Tucker v. Idaho, was filed on behalf of four individuals who were facing criminal charges at the time. The lawsuit described the experiences of the defendants who had to go before a judge for bail hearings, enter plea agreements and get sentenced without the assistance of a public defender.
In 2021, the Idaho Supreme Court upheld the ACLU’s claim that the state is responsible for ensuring proper public defense services, Idaho Reports reported. The lawsuit is still ongoing.
New system focused on cutting work loads, provide uniform training
Work for public defenders is not going to change under the new office, but instead the level of support is, Fredericksen said.
According to Fredericksen, the new office’s goal is to improve the quality of public defense. To achieve this, the office plans to establish a system that will make it easier for public defenders to access county information.
Under the current system, there are 44 different counties, with 44 different systems and approaches to public defense, which he said is a burden on public defenders, without a statewide support system in place.
According to House Bill 236, there is a transition cost of about $4.4 million this fiscal year, with a portion going toward establishing a statewide case management system. The case management system will combine county data so public defenders can run reports and have quick access to legal information, he said.
“By putting them all on the same case management system, they have access to redacted motions and briefs for their case filings from other counties and the State Appellate Public Defender’s Office,” Fredericksen said.
Fredericksen said he did not believe Idaho’s public defense system was previously deficient, but rather it was strained because it is difficult to find enough public defenders — particularly in rural counties. Under the new office, he said his goal is to cut down on work loads and provide consistent training and mentorship to public defenders.
As for former public defense commission employees, Fredericksen said their skill sets will be evaluated for inclusion into the State Public Defender on July 1, 2024.And as to whether current county public defenders and support staff would lose their jobs, Mr. Fredericksen said that is “absolutely not the case.”
“They’ll be absorbed into the State Public Defender and continue working as they were — the difference being on the last day of September, they’ll be a county employee and in October they’ll be a state employee.”
Legislation from 2022 changed how public defense system is funded
Fredericksen told the Sun that the 2022 legislation addressed two Idaho legislative priorities: property taxes and improving the quality of public defense.
House Bill 735 was sponsored by Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, and Rep. Jon Weber, R-Rexburg. It received bipartisan support, but it fell short of unanimous approval in the House by just one vote, with Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, being the only dissenting vote. In contrast, it received unanimous support in the Senate.
The biggest change the legislation created is that public defense in Idaho no longer relies on funds from the counties, but instead the state government.
In a phone interview, Weber said his previous experience working in local government inspired him to work on this legislation.
Before getting elected to the Idaho Legislature in 2020, Weber was a county commissioner for 12 years in Madison County. Weber said public defense has always been on his radar because of the expense it has on counties.
“When I was elected into the House, I worked with the Association of Counties, the Governor’s Office and public defenders across the state to revamp or redirect the public defense from local government to the state — which ultimately the state has that responsibility but deflected that to local government for a number of years,” he said.
Starting October of next year, counties would be released from financial obligations to indigent public defense.
“Our constitution says that we will provide public defense for those that can’t afford it,” Weber said. “It is an obligation that we took an oath to uphold.”