How can Nevada provide justice for indigents accused of crimes in rural counties?

Mitch3_1A commission set up by Nevada’s Supreme Court has found that in rural counties the system for providing attorneys for poor people accused of crimes is broken and is in desperate need of fixing.

The Indigent Defense Commission is expected to present its findings to the Supreme Court in December, at which time the court may ask the 2015 Legislature to create and fund a system of public defense attorneys for all counties other than the more densely populated Clark and Washoe counties.

The commission hired the Massachusetts-based Sixth Amendment Center to prepare a 44-page report on the history of indigent defense in Nevada, the current state of affairs and recommendations for improvements.

The Sixth Amendment of the Bill of Rights guarantees: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury … and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”

Nevada’s 1864 Constitution also provides that “in any court whatever, the party accused shall be allowed to appear and defend in person and with counsel” and that he may not be deprived of “life, liberty, or property, without due process.”

Until 1963, the right to counsel was widely interpreted as permissive, meaning a defendant could hire an attorney if he could afford one, but in the case of Gideon v. Wainwright the U.S. Supreme Court mandated that states — not counties or local jurisdictions — must assure competent counsel to poor people accused of felonies.

But unlike other states, Nevada was one of the first to pass a law requiring that the poor be provided paid lawyers. The 1877 law said an appointed attorney was entitled to receive from the county treasury “such fee as the Court may fix, not to exceed fifty dollars.”

The Sixth Amendment Center report — published a year ago under the title “Reclaiming Justice” — concluded that the Gideon decision meant “that the right to a lawyer means more than just the right to a warm body with a bar card.”

As an example of the difficulty in providing “effective” counsel on a shoestring budget, the report augers into the spending reported to the Indigent Defense Commission by Douglas County for the year 2007.

Douglas reported spending more than $450,000, which paid for two full-time attorneys and one part-time. But they handled 202 felony cases including one murder case, 3,249 misdemeanors, and 341 juvenile delinquency cases.

That averaged less than $120 per case to pay the attorney fee, overhead and all of the out-of-pocket expenses.

“One hundred and forty years ago the Nevada Legislature first set attorney compensation at a rate not to exceed $50 dollars per case,” the report noted. “The relative historical value of $50 in 1874 is estimated to be about $12,200 in 2007 dollars, yet Douglas County public defenders in 2007 earned less than 1% of that.”

That was the same year the Las Vegas newspaper looked into the caseload and payments to the Lyon County public defender. Jesse Kalter, 27, who had passed the bar exam a few weeks before, was handed a $105,000 contract with the county and 600 indigent cases, about 200 of them felonies. Add to this the fact public defenders in Lyon must drive 400 to 600 miles a week between the courthouses in Fernley and Yerington, the newspaper account states.

According to the American Bar Association standards, no attorney, no matter how experienced, should handle more than 200 felonies in a year.

Then there is the aggressiveness of the defense to be considered. The Sixth Amendment Center noted that in Douglas County of the nearly 4,000 indigent cases only four went to trial.

Atop that, it was noted that one of the key grounds for an appeal is “ineffective assistance of counsel.”

“But, in rural Nevada, the same attorney who represented the defendant at trial is also responsible for handling the direct appeal,” the report notes. “What are the chances that

overworked, unprepared, financially conflicted, public defense attorneys will ever raise ineffective assistance of counsel claims against themselves in a direct appeal?”

The center’s report argues that rural counties simply are not financially capable of providing the kind of effective defense counsel that is necessary and there should be a state-funded public defender office that could cover all of the rural counties.

No one is yet estimating just how much such an office might cost the state to provide.

What price justice? And who pays the tab?

Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at He also blogs at


  1. My boyfriend in Nevada we were residents here for 21 years had a Gambling problem we lived in Mesquite Nv. for 3 years and in Las Vegas for about 10 years and in Henderson for 5 years . He finally committed a crime caused by the Gambling Addiction and had a Public Defender in the mean time he was sickly with diabetes and was diagnosed with Colon cancer was on disability he paid into.He followed his probation despite his cancer treatment went to all his probation meetings physically with a chemo-drip on him at the Bonanza Location. Mind you on the bus in the Heat of the Desert. Walking from the bus stop, and when he went into surgery and he was bed ridden he wrote correspondence as to what the probation Dept wanted. He went to G.A. Meetings and presented the sign in sheet to the Probation Officer and she visited our apartment to see him and when she came into the apartment to see him he was in bed in the bedroom she asked if he could go into the living room. he had a colostomy bag on and was weak.Which at the time I thought was excessive. He was also ordered to see a counselor for I guess substance abuse which he had a Gambling Problem that is why he would do what he did Of which he did have the Insurance which would have cost him I believe 30 dollars a week or the one the probation officer wanted him to see not on his Insurance plan and he would have to pay sliding scale. So he did not go also he was still getting treatment for the Cancer and had to access the bus system to go all the way to Charleston Bl and Rancho from Henderson to see a substance Abuse counselor to satisfy what they wanted for probation. So he did not do that and pay restitution The Judge put him in High Desert Sate Prison with the Cancer He was not followed up properly by the Medical Outside the cancer had gone to his liver and lungs and was in his brain. After being put in Prison. Where is the JUstice. . Also they wanted him to pay restitution on his $ 1031 SDI payments he was receiving He paid One half of 633 a month for rent $200 for utilities and the rest for food and Medical. So where was he going to pay restitution. They said he violated his probation put him in Prison he did not get good Medical Care They neglected him for 90 days and with the stress The cancer came back and he was paroled 6 mos later He lost about 60 pounds contracted Septice an infection with the Diabetes and cancer and Died after being released 6 weeks later at St. Rose De Lima. This is cruel and unusual Punishment for a first time offense. Because of his Gambling Addiction. He said His public Defender let him down the Probation Officer let him down and it was not right. The public Defender was Hasmati a woman. and a female Caldwell His probation officer I talked to Caldwell after the sentencing and she said they wanted $10 a month in good faith out of his Disability George told me they wanted $100 out of $1031 he was receiving.on disability. He had Colon Cancer and Diabetses and a Gambling Addiction. He was trying to get help for. I feel the State of Nevada let George Down. And after he got out THe Medical was Shabby also even his care was not Good which I wrote to Dr. Joe Heck about being a former Caregiver in the 70,s in Calif. George and I complained about the decision to put him in a SNF after he was stabilized at St Rose De Lima Hospital and The Cancer Institute made a Mistake and his Surgeons at UMC to take the Colostomy Bag off and To give Him a dose of a very Strong Chemo that would have caused permanent Neuropathy in his hands and elbows which healready had in his feet from the Diabetes. His cancer Dr. Mailek said to me that They should have kept. The Colostomy bag on with a less amount of Chemo it would have prolonged his life a little. Given him more time. But why the Prison system and the Probation Dept. and the JUdge did what they did to George John Green I do not KNow. for a first offense with the Cancer they knew he had and the Diabetes and then neglecting him in Prison deliberately so he could suffer without treatment. He told me they were forcing him to sign a paper saying they treated him and he refused. Also when I talked to the Officer Caldwell she said the D.A. office was pushing to put George in prison because the restitution was not paid for him stealing 9,000 dollars fromJerry,s Nugget Casino he was working at. as a Race and Sports book Supervisor of which I told the Officer that they had him working as a Manager temporarily on supervisors pay also the new Manager they hired deliberately reviewed George badly because of a girl that was hired through the new Manager Mark a friend from The Hard Rock and made into a supervisor the same position George had and she was made into an Employee of the month and everyone was carrying her. George was there before Mark the new Manager. After he was reviewed badly by Mark the new Mgr. with Georges low self-esteem associated with an addiction he got scared and with the right to work state with no reason to fire an individual and George and I were depending on his Salary despite his Diabetes and he did have Cancer in his Colon at the time. and his Addiction to Gambling which was very bad with several attempts at suicide going through the mental health system. Counseling through St. Rose De LIma case managers from Calif. to Nevada social workers etc. George went off the deep end. I knew him for 18 years He never did anything as drastic as this. But it is enevitable with any addiction. If it is not treated but the responsibility of his place of work was totally unfair with the manager of his dept. George was doing a good job. Jeoulsey should not be a reason to review some one unfairly especially with the fact this lady he hired was a friend and unqualified.favortism in its most blatant form. So George went off the deep end with his low self-esteem gambling addiction thinking he was going to get fired no money no unemployment if he could gamble he could make the money to keep him afloat. It is like a double edge sword. and to complicate the issue his physical problems.I wrote this to you to tell a story and maybe someone will defend him and his memory. I feel he did not need to suffer and was treated unfairly. George was half Jewish I feel he was persecuted for no reason. and was not defended for his problem Thank You Carole L. Rawlings I still care about him.

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