CASPER, Wyo. — Removing jail sentencing as an option for some misdemeanor charges is one option that would help alleviate high caseloads for public defenders in Wyoming.
The Wyoming Senate and House Joint Judiciary Committee discussed this and other options during an interim meeting in Gillette on Tuesday, June 4.
The committee heard from State Public Defender Diane Lozano who explained that high caseloads for public defenders and difficulty staffing the Campbell and Natrona County Public Defenders Offices led to her decision to stop appointing public defenders to misdemeanor cases there.
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“Over the course of years, the caseloads have increased,” Lozano said. “The Constitution requires competent counsel.”
She explained that when attorneys take on too many cases, there are ethical questions about their ability to provide competent counsel to their clients.
After hearing from Lozano and others, including Campbell and Natrona County Circuit Court judges, some legislators offered suggestions for what actions the Wyoming Legislature could take to help solve the problem.
Representative Charles Pelkey said that legislation to remove jail sentencing from some misdemeanor charges would help, since in Wyoming, counsel only needs to be provided when there is a “practical possibility of incarceration.”
He brought up the issue of possession charges as an example.
Representative Art Washut also said that removing jail sentencing from state statutes regarding misdemeanor offenses was an option he thought should be explored.
However, he pointed to the example of some traffic violations which have the possibility of jail sentencing under state statute, but in practice rarely end with incarceration being ordered.
Other options were also discussed.
Committee Chairs Senator Tara Nethercott and Representative Dan Kirkbride both talked about the idea of offering student loan forgiveness to law students who come to Wyoming to practice after finishing school.
They said such a loan forgiveness program would help attract attorneys to Wyoming which could allow the State Public Defenders Office to more readily fill vacant positions.
The chairs also talked about looking at the process for determining when misdemeanor case clients are to be considered “indigent.” This is a legal term referring to a client who is unable to afford paying for their own counsel.
Nethercott said she thought there may be situations in which clients in misdemeanor trials are actually in a position to afford their own counsel. Legislation to ensure that public counsel is only provided to those clients who truly cannot afford their own might alleviate the caseload pressures on public defenders.
Kirkbride also discussed looking at the State Public Defenders Office pay classification policy.
Lozano explained to the committee that her office can only hire public defenders following the classification policy, which may limit their ability to provide competitive wages in places like Campbell County.
Wyoming State Bar Counsel Mark Gifford also spoke before the committee. He said that the Wyoming Supreme Court recently issued an emergency ruling that allows lawyers from out of Wyoming to directly begin working in Gillette and Casper.
He explained that this was a temporary measure to help alleviate the staffing issues there since the Wyoming State Bar’s review process for out of state lawyers can take up to six months in normal circumstances before they can begin practicing in Wyoming.
The ideas are in a preliminary stage as the committee did not make any motions to have the Legislative Service Office begin drafting legislation on the options they discussed.
Nethercott said that the topic of public defenders could be looked at during the committee’s next interim meeting, which is scheduled for August 15-16 in Casper.