BURLEY -- The right to an attorney, regardless of ability to pay, is a vital safeguard built into the U.S. justice system.
But what happens when public defenders become overloaded?
That's the question Public Defender Doug Whipple has been asking Cassia County commissioners recently.
Whipple, who shares defense duties with three other attorneys for both Minidoka and Cassia counties, has requested that an additional attorney be retained at least half-time to help handle a sharp increase in caseloads recently.
"We just get buried in cases, and right now we really need that other half-time attorney," Whipple said.
Fifth District Court Justices Michael Crabtree and Rick Bollar met with commissioners Monday and discussed, among other things, factors behind the increased caseload.
Crabtree offered the example of child abuse cases involving one mother and multiple fathers in which each party is entitled to a public defender.
"It's looming, it's there, and it's coming up more commonly due to changes in society," Crabtree said.
He also pointed to drug felonies that often involve multiple defendants.
"There may not be enough attorneys in the Mini-Cassia area." he said.
Whipple said the prevalence of methamphetamine has changed the complexion of cases as well.
"With marijuana cases, clients were much more mellow and cooperative," Whipple said. "With people on meth, it's a whole different ball game."
Methamphetamine users tend to feel invincible and be much less cooperative and more agitated, Whipple said, often making their defense more difficult and time consuming.
Another problem is the lack of an investigative staff, meaning that public defenders have to perform their own investigations, Whipple said.
"Law enforcement is cooperative, but they're not our investigators," Whipple said.
Commissioner Clay Handy proposed that, since the relocation of the county auditor's office, space is available at the courthouse to set up a permanent public defender's office in the building.
"I would love that, but I don't know if it would work," Whipple said.
While having office space in the courthouse would be more efficient, the feasibility would depend on the details of the arrangement, Whipple said. One of those details would be the potential salary for a full-time public defender dedicated to Cassia County cases.
"If the salary was comparable to that of the head prosecutor, then I'm interested," Whipple said.
But Whipple added that it's difficult to compare the two positions. Many clients hire private defense attorneys, and public defenders do not provide legal counsel to the county, he said. On the other hand, the prosecutor's office has law enforcement to perform its investigative work.
Dave Haley currently handles all of Cassia County's felony cases requiring a public defender.
"I don't know how that would help us so much," Haley said, adding the proposal would be more efficient but that he would still need to maintain his current office.
Haley estimates that he and the other public defenders are handling two or three times the number of cases dictated by American Bar Association and American Civil Liberties Union standards for attorneys.
Not everyone agrees with those numbers, though.
"There is presently a dispute between the prosecutor and our office as to the number of cases we handle," Haley said.
But Haley said his record-keeping is accurate.
"Conforming with ABA guidelines, it's not appropriate to take on more cases than we have now," he said.
Crabtree agreed but suggested the problem affects prosecutors and court staff as well.
"On a given day we have three courtrooms going," Crabtree said. "From my perspective, everybody's stretched out on both sides pretty tight."
Bollar said the courts are working to reduce the number of cases that go to trial and to offer the option of community service or work programs to alleviate overcrowding in the Mini-Cassia Criminal Justice Center.
"I'm real glad we have the Mini-Cassia work program as an option," Bollar said.
Commissioners are expected to consider bolstering the public defender's staff before submitting the county's annual budget later this week.
Times-News writer Chip Thompson can be reached at the newspaper's Mini-Cassia bureau at 677-4042, Ext. 638, or by e-mail at email@example.com