At a Glance (as of 2013)
Percentage of state funding: 1%
Percentage of local funding: 99%
Percentage of alternative funding: 0%
State commission: none
Branch of government: executive
Structure & Funding of Indigent Defense Services
Nevada statutes require all counties whose population is 100,000 or more to create a county-funded office of the public defender – Clark County (Las Vegas) and Washoe County (Reno) are the only two counties that qualify. Each of these counties also has a conflict defender office, though the Clark County Office of the Special Public Defender handles just conflict death penalty cases, other murder cases and representation of parents in termination of parental rights proceedings. An independent, coordinated assigned counsel system in Clark County handles all other conflict matters. The remaining fourteen counties and one independent city (Carson City) may if they so desire also establish a county public defender office, though only one other (Elko County) has done so.
The State Public Defender Act of 1971 created an independent seven-member commission appointed by a diversity of factions to ensure that no single branch of government could exert undue interference on the work of the agency dedicated to representing poor people. The commission was charged with overseeing the State Public Defender system, hiring and firing the executive of the system, and setting uniform policies for the delivery of indigent defense services in Nevada’s rural counties. As originally conceived, the State Public Defender was funded through a combination of state and county funding, with the state paying for 80% of all public defender costs in the rural counties and the counties paying the remaining 20%.
Yet, only four years after creating the State Public Defender Commission, the Nevada Legislature did away with it and voted instead to make the State Public Defender a direct gubernatorial appointment (four-year term). In 1989, the legislature further compromised the ability of the State Public Defender to render effective services by demoting the position from a gubernatorial cabinet-level position to one of several intra-agency positions within the Department of Human Services. This means that the State Public Defender must now justify the office budget among all human services divisions and then have the Director of Human Services argue that budget amongst all other cabinet departments.
Over time, this arrangement resulted in the state reducing its financial commitment to the point where today participating counties pay 80% of the entire cost of the system. Counties learned that, by simply opting out of the state system, they could spend less money to provide the services and exercise local power over their public defense systems. However, this movement out of the State Public Defender system was done with no guidance whatsoever by the state (i.e., there are no standards as to how the counties must set up their systems). In most instances, the county governments established systems in which the lowest bidder is contracted to provide representation in an unlimited number of cases for a single flat fee. The attorneys are not reimbursed for overhead or for out-of-pocket case expenses such as mileage, experts, investigators, etc. Today, the state public defender serves only Carson City and White Pine County.
Pursuant to the Nevada Supreme Court’s inherent authority to regulate legal practice in the state, the Court issued Administrative Order ADKT-411on January 2008 that, among other things: a) instituted performance standards for attorneys in trial-level adult criminal, juvenile delinquency, and appellate representation; b) removed the judiciary from the oversight and administration of indigent defense; and, c) required each county to submit to the Supreme Court for approval local plans for delivering indigent defense services.
Source of data: original research conducted by Sixth Amendment Center staff.