Torres’ criminal-justice training bill headed to governor after unanimous approval from House of Representatives

Bipartisan measure addresses crisis-level shortage of public defenders and prosecutors

OLYMPIA…  In a late-night session just a day prior to a key legislative deadline, the House of Representatives voted 92-0 to approve a measure from Sen. Nikki Torres that is aimed at addressing the shortage crisis in the Washington public defense/prosecution system.

“Our criminal-justice system is drowning. There aren’t enough public defenders and prosecutors to ensure fair, competent, speedy trials, even though defendants are entitled to them and the public depends on them to keep our streets safe,” said Torres, R-Pasco and a member of the Senate Law and Justice Committee. 

“The unanimous passage of this important bill throws the system a lifeline and gives us hope that we can begin to seriously address some of systematic needs critical to the smooth functioning of our criminal-justice process.”

Senate Bill 5780 passed the House on Thursday evening, prior to Friday’s 5 p.m. deadline for the House to act on Senate bills. It would encourage participation in public-defense and prosecution professions, by requiring the Washington State Office of Public Defense (OPD) to administer a law-student rural public defense program. It also would place law students as legal interns or recent law-school graduates with experienced public defense attorneys located in underserved areas and rural areas of the state.

If fully funded, the measure would require OPD to expand the capacity of its Criminal Defense Training Academy program to train new public defenders.  The bill would also create a similar law-student rural-prosecution program that would be administered by the Criminal Justice Training Commission or contracted by them to the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (WAPA), which would aid in the training and placement of future prosecutors in underserved communities.

“When we think of workforce shortages, we don’t often think of our public defenders and prosecutors, but the public court system is on the verge of collapse,” said Torres. “The consequences could leave poor and disadvantaged individuals in jail, while they wait for an attorney to be provided. The backlog in prosecutions also can result in dangerous people being released on to the streets, adding to the lawlessness too many our communities are facing. That’s just the tip of the problem.

“If we don’t start addressing this crisis, we are at risk of seeing a complete failure of our ability to prosecute criminals and ensure justice for victims of crime.”

Torres’ measure now heads to the governor’s desk for consideration.