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Definition of ‘needy person’ could change in Wyoming, affecting rights to public defenders

Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. – The Wyoming Senate discussed a bill that could change the workload for the state’s public defenders on Thursday, Feb. 13.

SF 13 would clarify what constitutes “indigency” for a person to need a public defender, amending the standards already in place. 

While introducing the bill on Monday, Feb. 10, Laramie County Sen. Tara Nethercott told her fellow senators that this would help lawmakers determine what the actual need for a public defender is. Currently, a “needy person” is a person who can’t provide for the full payment of an attorney and all other necessary expenses of representation. 

This language would be updated to state that a needy person was someone who is unable to provide for the full payment and other expenses without prejudicing their financial ability to provide basic economic necessities for themselves or their families. 

A person will be presumed in need if they receive some type of public assistance (like Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income); if they live in a mental health facility and have no available funds; or if they are serving in a state correctional facility and have no available funds.

This could be a major shift for public defenders in Wyoming, as it’s well-known that the state public defender’s office is dealing with a staffing crisis. Former Wyoming State Public Defenders Dallas Laird and Frank Chapman told Oil City News in May 2019 that one of the reasons for the staffing issue is because the legislature hasn’t provided enough funding to attract and retain attorneys. 

Sen. Liisa Anselmi-Dalton explained that this bill was intended to help the public defender’s office, and she hoped this bill would take some work off of their desks. 

Sen. Eli Bebout and Natrona County Sen. Charles Scott questioned whether or not a person’s income level could fluctuate from year to year, affecting whether or not they’re eligible for a public defender. Nethercott told her fellow senators that the language could be amended and they could finesse the bill to make sure the people who are truly needy are served by a public defender. 

The bill is sponsored by the Joint Judicial Interim Committee. It was unanimously voted to be introduced on Feb. 10 and sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee, who also unanimously voted to send it back to the Senate for general file. 

SF passed Committee of the Whole on Thursday, meaning it will go in front of the Senate for a second reading. 

If signed into law by Gov. Mark Gordon, this bill would go into effect on July 1, 2020.