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King County Council committee adopts fostering and promoting access to justice and equity

The Metropolitan King County Council’s Committee of the Whole voted unanimously at its special June 27 meeting to approve an ordinance amending the King County Charter to create a Department of Public Defense.

The Committee unanimously adopted an amendment sponsored by Councilmember Rod Dembowski that expressly empowers the Department of Public Defense with the duty to “foster and promote system improvements, efficiencies, access to justice and equity in the criminal justice system.” The Dembowski Amendment also insulates the mission of the Department of Public Defense from interference by any elected official.

“In 2010, King County adopted a four-year strategic plan applying the countywide strategic plan principle of “fair and just” intentionally in all the county does in order to achieve equitable opportunities for all people and communities. Today’s amendment acknowledges the elements that make our public defender system one of the best in the country and enshrines those principles as duties of the Department of Public Defense in the constitution of King County,” said Dembowski. “I thank my colleagues and our public defense and civil rights leaders for supporting my amendment to today’s legislation.”

The Dembowski Amendment drew broad support from leaders in the public defense and civil rights advocacy community, many of whom testified in favor of its adoption at today’s meeting.

“Councilmember Dembowski's charter language defining work for equity, system reform and access to justice as a core part of the public defense function is quite important,” said Lisa Daugaard, Deputy Director of The Defender Association. “It goes a long way toward protecting what has historically been a strength of King County public defense."

“King County public defenders have been key participants in justice system reform efforts of concern to immigrant and refugee communities, including developing diversion strategies that do not trigger deportation proceedings; engaging in police reform efforts; and calling attention to the need to re-examine practices with relation to ICE detainers,” said Jorge L. Barón, Executive Director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.  “We welcome that the changes proposed by Councilmember Dembowski and adopted by the full Council today will ensure that future public defenders will continue to have a role in these and other important justice reform efforts."

“King County’s public defense system has long been a leader nationally, and the charter amendment with its recognition of an independent public defender whose duties include promoting access to justice and equity in the criminal justice system is critical to its continuing excellence,” stated Christie Hedman, Executive Director of Washington Defender Association.

To provide public comment on the restructuring of the public defense system in King County visit: http://www.kingcounty.gov/council/issues/publicdefense.aspx

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