Nearly a year after contract public defenders criticized their compensation, the Kootenai County commissioners approved 15 new contracts on Tuesday that aimed at a fairer system.
The contracts are better structured to track the hours of attorneys taking on indigent, conflict-of-interest cases for the county, said Commissioner Jai Nelson.
Hopefully the county will provide more accurate reimbursement as a result, she said, and possibly reduce the roughly $250,000 spent last year on conflict attorneys.
"Before, we didn't know if they were underworked, overworked, we had nothing to track that," Nelson said. "I think this does a lot fairer job of paying per case."
Frustrations were voiced last December by the then five county-contracted defense attorneys. They complained that the lump monthly payments of $1,625 or $3,250 didn't adequately compensate for workload on many or complex cases.
Nelson agrees it wasn't fair.
"Whether you had zero cases or you had many cases, you were paid the same amount," she said.
Under the new contracts, conflict public defenders will be paid by the hour, with rates assigned according to the case's complexity.
Category A, complex criminal cases, will pay $95 an hour; Category B, conventional criminal cases, will pay $85 an hour; and Category C, child protection and juvenile matters, will pay $75 an hour.
Attorneys will fill out monthly payment applications, listing their active cases and hours worked.
"Now I'll be able to keep a data bank of what this is actually costing us," said Nelson, who has authority over the public defender's office and spearheaded the new contracts.
Nelson hopes to lower costs by gauging which attorneys are most efficient at certain case categories, she said. The county will also prioritize juvenile conflict cases.
"If we can conflict out juvenile cases, we can reduce our costs overall on conflict cases," she said.
Attorney Michael Palmer, who previously resigned from a county contract over compensation concerns, was among the 15 attorneys with signed contracts on Tuesday.
He was pleased that conflict attorneys will be more adequately paid for difficult cases.
"The way the contract was structured before, each was paid $3,250 a month, it didn't matter whether the county assigned you 40 drug trafficking cases that take hundreds and hundreds of hours, or 40 open container cases that take an hour apiece," Palmer said.
He was also grateful that conflict defenders now have the option of turning down county cases, so they can balance with their private practice.
Palmer still hopes the county will bump up the hourly rate eventually, he said.
"There is certainly an advantage to having a contract with a corporation or government entity," he acknowledged. "You know you're going to get paid. You can afford to work for less, when you know that's happening."
Public defender Sean Walsh, also contracted with the county, said the hourly compensation will ensure better representation for indigent clients.
"It discourages attorneys handling these cases from putting minimal time into representing these folks," he said.
He was disappointed that contracts will no longer cover office expenses, but that's balanced by paralegal work now being compensated at up to $35 an hour.
"It's a good compromise," Walsh said.
The contracted attorneys jumped from four to 15 because more defenders showed interest in the new contract, Nelson said.
Judge John Mitchell, who worked with Nelson on the new contracts, assigned each defender to specific case categories.
Walsh applauded Nelson and Mitchell's diligence in meeting with the attorneys and other officials to iron out what was needed.
"They took their time, did their homework," Walsh said. "This is just really good government."