An NAPD Interview with Idaho PDC Executive Director Kimberly Simmons
Kimberly: My career as a public defender probably started before I was actually a PD. In law school, I developed a passion for criminal law in my 1L criminal law class. My professor was one of the most intelligent people I've ever met, and he was very engaging. My passion grew when I began volunteering at the Moratorium Campaign, an anti-death penalty organization founded by Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking. I eventually worked for the Campaign as an administrative assistant during my 2L and 3L years. During the summer between those years, I interned with the Federal Defenders of Eastern Washington and Idaho, in their Capital Habeas Unit. I knew at that point, that I was going to at least start my career as a public defender. Upon graduation from law school in 2003, a year later, I was hired at the State Appellate Public Defender's office in Boise, Idaho. I started as a second-chair attorney in the Capital Litigation Unit, handling post-conviction cases and appeals. After a few years, I began handling a new case as a lead attorney. I realized that I would literally be arguing for my client's life in Court, and I was still terrified of the courtroom as my practice up to this point consisted mostly of research and writing. In the fall of 2006, I transitioned to the Ada County public defender's office in Boise to gain courtroom experience. I spent 8 years in that office, handling misdemeanors for 2 years, then felonies for the remaining 6. In 2014, the neighboring county decided to move from a contract defender office to an institutional office. I thought it would be exciting to be a part of a brand-new office, so I accepted a Senior-level trial attorney position in that office. It was at the same time that the PDC was established. A friend and colleague was hired as the first Executive Director of the PDC. After about a year, he resigned to go back to practicing law, and I considered applying for the now vacant position. A new bill passed the legislature giving the PDC more power and duties. I felt it was time to give back to my fellow public defenders. I applied and was selected for the Executive Director position. It's been about a month, and I'm having a lot of fun! So much work to do. I definitely hit the ground running.
NAPD: Tell us about the Idaho public defense system?
Kimberly: Idaho's public defense system is currently run by the counties. On July 1, 2016, the PDC will begin providing funding to Counties. Counties will have to apply to the PDC for “indigent defense grants” and be in compliance with standards and guidelines to be set by the PDC. We have yet to create those standards and guidelines, so this year the Counties can expect to get funding as long as they provide services through one of the delivery models provided in the statute. A county can choose to establish and maintain a public defender office, join another county within the same district to establish and maintain a public defender office, contract with an existing public defender office, or contract with a defending attorney (no flat fee contracts allowed). There are 8 institutional offices run by the counties: Ada, Bannock, Bonner, Bonneville, Canyon, Gooding, Kootenai, and Twin Falls; and 2 counties that maintain a joint office: Minidoka and Cassia. The remaining counties contract with defending attorneys (except for 1 county that is out of compliance and uses an assigned counsel system).
NAPD: What were the dynamics that resulted in reform in Idaho?
Kimberly: In 2010, the NLADA published a report after a study of the Idaho Public Defense System concluding that Idaho's system is constitutionally inadequate. The report listed many problem areas, including but not limited to lack of independence (flat-fee contracts), excessive workloads, indigent defendants being processed through magistrate court without an attorney, lack of confidential meeting spaces, lack of vertical representation and lack of training. As a result of this study and at the recommendation of the Idaho Criminal Justice Commission, in the spring of 2013, the legislature created the Public Defense Reform Interim Committee to study potential approaches to public defense reform. The work of the Interim Committee resulted in the proposal of legislation that would create a State Public Defense Commission. The legislation passed and was signed by the Governor on March 26, 2014. The PDC opened its doors that summer. The powers and duties of the PDC were limited to promulgating rules regarding training and the collection of data, as well as making recommendations to the legislature regarding the delivery of public defense throughout the state. The Interim Committee proposed new legislation earlier this year giving the PDC additional powers and duties to promulgate rules regarding: procedures for the creation, oversight, implementation, enforcement, and modification of indigent defense standards; requirements for contracts between counties and private attorneys for the provision of indigent defense services; data reporting requirements; procedures for grant applications by which counties can apply for state funds to offset the cost of compliance with indigent defense standards; and procedures for administrative review of commission decision. The bill passed and was signed by the Governor on March 24, 2016. The original Executive Director of the PDC resigned in the fall of 2015, so the PDC was in need of a new ED. I was hired to begin this new journey on May 9, 2016.
NAPD: What are your top priorities as Executive Director?
Kimberly: Though I am not the first ED of the PDC, my role is much more expansive with the passage of the recent legislation. I feel like I'm treading new ground and there is a lot of work for us to do.
At the outset, it is really important to start promulgating the standards and guidelines by which our counties must comply. The counties should be notified as soon as possible about the expectations of a constitutional indigent defense delivery system. As part of this process, I feel it is very important to personally visit with my public defender colleagues, county commissioners, and other stakeholders to assess their needs and be a resource and ally rather than an interloper. It is very important to me that the PDC be viewed as a resource rather than a dictator.
Secondly, providing quality training and continuing legal education on a regular basis as well as creating a library of information including a brief bank that is readily accessible to the indigent defense providers in our state.
NAPD: How would you describe your leadership philosophy?
Kimberly: I would describe my leadership style as democratic, as opposed to authoritarian or laissez-faire. I believe that everyone should play a part in our decisions, while also providing guidance and direction by myself and the PDC. As a leader, my goal is to be honest, forward-looking, inspiring, fair-minded and imaginative. I also hope to maintain good communication with the PDC, the counties, and my public defender colleagues.
NAPD: What is your organization's greatest strength?
Kimberly: I believe our greatest strength is the determination and energy of our Commission. Many of the members were involved in the Interim Committee that established the PDC and continue to serve in an effort to improve the trial-level indigent defense delivery system in Idaho. The Commission has educated itself over the years in a comprehensive manner about the issues faced not only by Idaho's system, but by other systems across the U.S. Further, the different stakeholders that are relevant to public defense reform are represented and can provide appropriate input as we move forward.
NAPD: What are your organization's biggest barriers?
Kimberly: Funding our mission will be difficult. We were lucky enough to secure an ongoing appropriation alongside the recent legislation that passed, but it will likely not be enough to bring the entire State into compliance. We'll need to continue our research and educate the Legislature on our needs to be compliant with our obligations as a State under 6th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the analogous provision of the Idaho Constitution.
NAPD: Are there problems with caseloads in Idaho?
Kimberly: Many of the counties in Idaho have caseloads that exceed the National standards.
NAPD: What problems with predatory practices (jailing for failing to pay fines and fees) do you have in Idaho?
Kimberly: Bail for our indigent clients is an ongoing issue. Most, if not all of our indigent defendants, especially those charged with felonies, are unable to afford even the smallest amount of bail and spend 3-6 months in jail prior to the resolution of their case. In at least one county, the Court is issuing warrants for failure to pay fines/fees, long after any probationary period has expired. We see this as the equivalent of a “debtor's prison” in that county.
NAPD: How do you maintain relations with the client community?
Kimberly: Our organization does not communicate directly with the client community (I'm assuming this question is referring to indigent defendants that are represented at county expense). Hopefully, by improving our indigent defense delivery system, we can enhance the reputation of public defenders in our state, thereby improving the relationships that public defenders have with their clients. If we, the PDC, receive communication from indigent defendants, we do respond indicating that though we cannot represent them or provide legal advice, we appreciate their correspondence and we'll keep in mind their concerns as we move forward to create the rules that will set the standards and guidelines for public defenders across the state.
NAPD: How do you ensure that professional development occurs?
Kimberly: The PDC, under our state statute, is tasked with providing training and continuing legal education for Idaho's indigent defense providers. We will organize and host conferences and seminars while also paying 100% of the costs for public defenders to attend.
NAPD: How do you communicate with the criminal justice system in your jurisdiction?
Kimberly: Communication from the Commission comes in the form of email, the internet (website and social media) and open meetings, which are held monthly (at a minimum). Over the next several months, I anticipate creating a forum and/or listserve to establish a more consistent and open method of communication with the appropriate stakeholders. Additionally, the make-up of our Commission provides multiple outlets for communication as we have members that are involved in the following criminal justice organizations:
· Idaho Criminal Justice Commission - Created by a 2005 Governor's Executive Order. Made up of 25 members from three branches of government and the community, ICJC and its subcommittees address important criminal justice issues and challenges, and develop and propose balanced, cost-effective, best-practice solutions to achieve a safer Idaho. The commission meets approximately ten times per year. Commission member Sara Thomas is the chairperson and Chairman Darrell Bolz is a member.
· Justice Reinvestment Initiative Steering Committee – Engaged in the study of Idaho's criminal justice system using the justice reinvestment approach. The committee discusses and finds policy options to increase public safety and avert growth in the prison population. Commission member Sara Thomas is a member.
· House Judiciary and Rules Committee – This committee deals with issues related to Idaho courts, prisons, attorneys, and juvenile justice. House Representative and Commission member Christy Perry is a member.
· State Appellate Public Defender – The SAPD provides appellate representation to indigent defendants who have been convicted of a felony in district court. The SAPD also provides appellate representation to petitioners in state felony post-conviction and habeas cases. In capital cases, where a defendant has been sentenced to death, the SAPD provides district court representation for post-conviction proceedings, as well as representation on appeal from both the denial of a post-conviction petition and the direct appeal from the judgment of conviction. Commission member Sara Thomas is the State Appellate Public Defender.
· Idaho Juvenile Justice Commission – The mission of IDJC is to prevent or reduce juvenile crime in
partnership with communities through prevention, rehabilitation, and reintegration. Chairman Darrell Bolz is a member.
· Sex Offender Management Board – This 11-member independent policy board is charged with setting standards for adult and juvenile psychosexual evaluations and sex offender treatment programs; certifying professionals who conduct pre-sentence psychosexual evaluations, sex offender treatment, and post-conviction sex offender polygraphs that are ordered by the court, IDOC or Commission for Pardons and Parole; providing quality assurance of standards and qualifications; and establishing protocols for sex offender management and classification. Executive Director Kimberly Simmons is a member.
· Pre-trial Justice Subcommittee – This subcommittee of the Idaho Criminal Justice Commission is tasked with evaluating pretrial justice in Idaho and identifying principles and solutions for pretrial processes. Executive Director Kimberly Simmons is a member.
· Administrative Office of the Courts – Commission member Justice Linda Copple Trout is the Administrative Director of Courts and provides input on behalf of state courts.
· National Association of Public Defense – Steering Committee. Commission member Sara Thomas is a member.
· National Association of Public Defense – Amicus Committee. Commission member Sara Thomas is the chairperson.
NAPD: In 4 years, how do you want people to describe your organization?
Kimberly: I would like others to see our organization as a resource that helps improve the efficiency and quality of public defense in Idaho, thereby improving the criminal justice system as a whole.
NAPD: How do you maintain work/life balance?
Kimberly: When at all possible, I maintain a set schedule at the office, while also making sure that I stay in shape and take time for myself outside of work. An unhappy Kimberly at home makes for an unhappy and less productive Kimberly at work. I was told I should mention that I run marathons in my spare time to maintain that balance. I ran my first Boston Marathon this year. It was definitely all it is chalked up to be.
NAPD: What else do you want your fellow defenders to know about you and your organization?
Kimberly: We are a young organization with a lot of energy and very dedicated to the improvement of the indigent defense delivery system in Idaho. Our system is unique as the counties are responsible for funding the indigent defense offices, but the State, through our organization, has committed to assisting the counties to provide effective and fair representation. As we progress, we hope to establish working relationships with similar organizations in other jurisdictions to not only research new approaches or methods to improving the system, but also to share our experiences so others can find new and innovative ways to improve the quality of indigent defense representation in their jurisdiction.