By Katie Sawyer
McPherson Sentinel
Kansas’ ongoing financial woes might soon begin to affect the ability for defendants to receive a fair trial.
The Board of Indigents Defense Services (BIDS) is the state’s public defense system. In counties that do not have a dedicated public defenders office, such as McPherson and Harvey counties, BIDS is the mechanism by which local attorneys are reimbursed for their time defending those that can’t afford private counsel.
In Harvey and McPherson counties, attorneys can be put on a list and can choose to accept indigent cases when called upon. BIDS reimburses the attorneys at a rate of $62 an hour, which is often far below their usual billing rates.
However, BIDS, already underfunded, is facing a budget cut it potentially can’t afford. The Senate Ways and Means Committee voted last week to cut its budget by 6 percent, leaving the system with $21.7 million. The cut was proposed by Governor Sam Brownback.
“BIDS funding was already stretched very thin,” said local attorney David Harger. “I am concerned that further reductions in funding for BIDS will impact the quality of representation received by those accused of crimes, locally and statewide, particularly those accused of the most serious crimes.”
Harger pointed out vouchers submitted to BIDS are reviewed and approved of by judges as being needed for a defense.
“Additional cuts will also limit the ability of defense counsel to obtain necessary support services, such as investigators, expert evaluation of evidence and cases, and other services that are critical to representing those accused of felony offenses,” Harger said.
Legislators also are concerned about what cuts to BIDS would do to the state’s legal system.
“It’s a huge problem, frankly, because as we see recidivism coming back because we got rid of all the programs to address it in the prison system. We see more need to have court-appointed counsel,” said State Senate Majority Leader and Lindsborg attorney Jay Emler. “There are a lot of attorneys that won’t take work (for what BIDS currently pays). At some point, there’s going to be an action, or multiple actions, for ineffective assistance of counsel, if we don’t increase the funding for BIDS.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly wage for Kansas attorneys in 2009 was $37. According to Harger, however, greed is not a factor in wanting more from BIDS. Rather, there are significant costs to an effective defense in major cases. In many cases, attorneys have a significant delay between submitting approved vouchers to BIDS and receiving payment.
Should BIDS endure additional cuts, attorney’s who undertake public defense may find themselves in the same boat as educators and mental health providers — namely being obligated to do the exact same level of work for less.