Rep. Travis Couture proposes creative fix to public defense funding, shortage of law enforcement officers

As property and violent crime rates continue to rise in parts of Washington state, public safety is a top priority for House Republicans in the 2024 legislative session. Rep. Travis Couture has filed a bill to address two critical public safety needs – indigent public defense funding and growing the number of law enforcement officers in Washington state.

“I realize these two issues are counterintuitive, but both are critical elements of public safety, “said Couture, R-Allyn. “My goal with this bill is to take the politics out of this highly charged issue so lawmakers can focus on what’s important – providing adequate public safety.

While most states in the country provide roughly half of the funding to cover the cost of providing defense attorneys to those who cannot afford them, Washington state only provides about 3% of that funding. That has led to a crisis in most Washington counties that prompted a recent lawsuit by 37 of the state’s 39 counties asking the courts to order the state to pick up more of the tab.

In 2022, counties and the state spent nearly $203 million on indigent defense with the state covering only $5.8 million of that.

“My big concern – and the big impact this has on public safety – is that if counties can’t provide the constitutionally-required public defense of a criminal suspect, or if that public defense cannot be provided in a timely manner, the courts must order the release of those suspects,” said Couture. “That means criminals are just being released back on the street without jail time and without being held accountable, and that puts the public at risk.”

House Bill 2202 would create a new funding allocation formula to help counties cover these costs.

  • The bill requires $200M per year to be transferred to a new account for this purpose  
  • The funding is driven out based on population and criminal case filings in each county

This funding would be contingent on counties meeting new minimum police staffing ratios intended to bring Washington state from last in the nation of officers per capita to near the middle. If the county meets the ratio, it can use its new funding allocation for indigent defense or law enforcement costs.  If the county has not met the per capita ratio, it must spend its funding allocation on hiring more police officers until they meet the ratio. 

The goal:

  • By the end of FY25, replace 495 (4.4%) commissioned officers lost since calendar year 2020 and achieve a rate of 1.50 officers per thousand of population, up from the current 1.12.
  • By the end of FY26, hire approximately 2,200 officers (cumulatively), with an objective of 1.75 officers per 1,000 of the population (similar to AZ, a state of approximately 500,000 less persons).
  • By the end of FY27, hire an additional 7,400 officers (cumulatively) to achieve the national average, currently at 2.33 officers per thousand of the population statewide.

“Washington state has long lagged behind other states in our number of officers per capita, but that exodus of existing officers we have lost over the past few years due to retirement of morale issues has been detrimental to our state, and we see the evidence of that daily,” said Couture. “My bill will help ensure the funding is there for Washington to boost law enforcement staffing.”

Couture acknowledged that funding aspect is only part of the problem when it comes to increasing the number of officers in the state.

“The morale aspect is a huge part of the reason Washington is last in the nation in officers per capita,” said Couture. “But the damage done to law enforcement morale by the overcorrection of the majority party’s recent police reforms and the defunding of the police movement and other police reforms by cities like Seattle will take time to reverse – if that is even possible. I believe the funding aspect is a good start and a huge step in the right direction.”

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Washington State House Republican Communications
houserepublicans.wa.gov