State Legislature Passes Significant Public Defense Bill

Public Defenders Urge Legislature to Stop Governor from Cutting Successful  Resentencing Program | San Francisco Public Defender's Office

Excellent article in the Seattle Times from journalist Daniel Beekman discussed the passage of Senate Bill 5780. The legislation is a huge win for WA state’s beleaguered criminal legal system. It won early support in the Senate but stalled before last Friday’s deadline to pass the House. Fortunately, it prevailed at the last minute only after a Seattle Times story spotlighted the public defense crisis. It is now headed to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk to be signed into law.


When you’re accused of a crime and don’t have enough money to pay an attorney, the government is supposed to provide you with one. It’s a constitutional right. But many Washington communities are struggling to hire and retain public defenders and to keep up with cases (statewide rules cap the number of cases a defender can handle each year). So some defendants are going without proper representation, even while in jail, and some prosecutions are getting delayed or dismissed. In some places, prosecutors are in short supply, as well.

The crisis exists because the COVID pandemic created backlogs, fewer people are going to law school, young attorneys are choosing other jobs, attorneys certified for high-level felony cases are burning out and policing changes are making cases more time-consuming, among other reasons.

Rural areas and Eastern Washington communities such as Yakima and the Tri-Cities have been hit especially hard, partly because they lack amenities and resources to compete with private sector employers for qualified attorneys. Unlike most other states, Washington relies on its counties to fund their own public defense services, and those costs have grown in recent years.


SB 5780 is meant to combat rampant staffing and caseload challenges that are pushing Washington’s public defense apparatus to the brink of collapse and simultaneously threatening prosecutorial operations. The legislation helps recruit and train more attorneys for crucial jobs in public defense and prosecution.

The bill directs state agencies to set up internship programs for aspiring public defenders and prosecutors in rural and underserved areas. It also directs the agencies to provide training to early-career public defenders and prosecutors. More specifically, SB 5780 calls for the state’s Office of Public Defense to administer a “law student rural defense program.” The program places students and recent graduates as interns with experienced public defenders in underserved communities. Similarly, it calls for the state Criminal Justice Training Commission to oversee a “law student rural prosecution program” placing interns with prosecutors. The interns are supposed to get mentoring, pay and housing stipends, and supervising attorneys may receive some money for their time.

The bill also expands the Criminal Defense Training Academy and the Criminal Justice Training Commission. These organizations train early-career public defenders and prosecutors.

My opinion? The legislation is a step in the right direction. Studies show public defenders face extremely heavy workloads that prevent them from providing effective legal representation to people accused of crimes.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.