Opinion: Colorado public defender’s office must be transparent

From The Denver Post:  By George Brauchler and Jeff Chostner

One of the fastest-growing departments in state government says it is exempt from public scrutiny. The Office of the Colorado State Public Defender claims exemption from the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA), the law that mandates transparency in our government and how it spends our hard-earned tax dollars. That exemption renders to the office a level of secrecy not enjoyed by any other state government agency. This lack of transparency robs the public of answers to myriad questions impacting public policy and how we spend Colorado’s limited tax monies.

What is the true cost of a death penalty case? The speculative and repeated claim that it costs tens of millions of dollars remains largely unsubstantiated because the public defender adamantly refuses to provide any information about how it has spent tax money to prevent a death sentence. For instance, the public defender’s office defended Sir Mario Owens for his role in the assassination of witness Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe. Although the public defender’s office has not represented Owens since the last decade, it refuses to provide any information about the taxpayer monies it spent to unsuccessfully spare him from a death sentence.

Why have Coloradans been asked to spend an exploding amount of money on taxpayer-funded defense attorneys? Over the past 10 years, the number of adult felony cases filed in Colorado has decreased by 10 percent; the number of juvenile cases has plummeted by more than 45 percent. Yet, over the same period, the budget and staff of the public defender has more than doubled. This year, Colorado will spend nearly $110 million for taxpayer-funded attorneys ostensibly for “the indigent.” By comparison, from 2010 to 2014, the budget of the 18th Judicial District District Attorney’s Office, representing Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties, shrank by 3.2 percent in real dollars.

And, unlike the public defender’s office, our budget and administrative files are covered by CORA.

Despite the empirical evidence of a decreasing case load throughout the entire criminal justice system, the public defender justifies its recession-proof budget growth using an unparalleled power to claim to the Joint Budget Committee an increasing number of “open” cases each year without additional verification. The public is not permitted to scrutinize those numbers and the courts do not track them. Coloradans are left to foot the bill to represent defendants in at most 50 percent of criminal cases, without the ability to verify those numbers.

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