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Any American citizen who is accused of a crime has a constitutional right to adequate legal representation. A unanimous United States Supreme Court ruled in Gideon vs. Wainwright (1963) that the Sixth Amendment requires states to provide a competent lawyer to criminal defendants who cannot afford to hire an attorney themselves.

Reasonable people can debate what the definition of “adequate representation” should be. But everyone should agree that someone who is accused of a crime who cannot afford his or her own lawyer shouldn’t have to wait weeks — even months — to finally speak with an attorney. We should also agree that those attorneys should have adequate time to review the case and be able to consult with their clients in a discreet, private setting.

Are those things happening in Idaho? Not consistently enough, if you ask the American Civil Liberties Union.

Of course, the ACLU is hardly a popular organization in Idaho because it is often known as a champion of liberal causes. And the fact that it successfully sued Canyon County into making much-needed improvements in its jail didn’t win over many hearts here, either.

There are times when the ACLU causes trouble for no legitimate reason — for example, when it tries to stop schools from offering voluntary classes where boys and girls are taught separately. Sometimes the organization comes across as antagonistic busybodies taking silly stands on what should not even be controversial issues.

But in the case of indigent legal defense in the Gem State, the group makes some legitimate arguments, and they deserve to be heard.

Only three Idaho counties have public defense offices. Most of the remaining counties (37 of them) contract their public defense services to private law firms. Canyon County is one of them. When that happens, those attorneys can also take on private clients for additional money, which results in multiple interests — indigent legal public defense and additional private clients.

Does this put public defendants at a disadvantage? Are their attorneys more inclined to devote less attention to their cases than the prosecutor’s office will? These are serious questions worthy of serious discussion.

To its credit, Canyon County is taking steps in the right direction. The county has approved a needed new administration building, and the extra space would help provide for confidential attorney-client meetings. ACLU-Idaho also noted that the county is showing an effort to ensure adequate training to public defenders.

The Idaho Legislature should empower a panel to look into the issue of state oversight and possible regulation of indigent defense. Right now that’s left up to counties to handle, which has produced a wide, inconsistent array of service.

Canyon County has 18 attorneys contracted for public defense and four support staff. The ACLU is backing a recommendation to increase that to 21 attorneys and 13 support staff, which would increase costs to the county by anywhere from $500,000 to $800,000.

Cost, of course, will be a concern. Budgeting will continue to be tight. It may require allocating the resources we already have in a different manner.

But it could cost the state a whole lot more if the ACLU decides to sue like it has in other states, including Montana, to make its point.

This isn’t about coddling criminals. If you or someone you care about were wrongly accused, you’d want good legal representation — it’s your right.

This is an issue that ought to be examined thoroughly, and a legislative committee would be a great place to start.

* Our view is based on the majority opinions of the Idaho Press-Tribune editorial board. Members of the board are Publisher Matt Davison, Managing Editor Vickie Holbrook, Opinion Editor Phil Bridges and community members Maria Radovich, Mike Fuller, Kenton Lee, Rich Cartney, Megan Harrison and Kelly Gibbons.

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