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Kitsap Public Defender is on the case

The newly created Kitsap County Public Defender’s office is now at full strength, ready to balance the scales of justice for those appearing in front of a local judge who cannot afford to pay for their own legal representation.

“We’re obligated to provide legal representation for anyone who is accused of a crime and can’t afford to pay for it themselves,” said Kitsap County Clerk Dave Peterson. “We have put together a first-rate team here that is more capable than a lot of small law offices that hire young attorneys.”

The county has previously contracted with several local firms to provide indigent defense, recently hiring a single attorney to coordinate the efforts.

Clarke Tibbits, who moved into the job last summer after working in private practice in Chelan County, is now supported by a staff of two attorneys — Shane Silverthorn and Bill Howser — an office manager and a receptionist.

Rounding out the staff is former Klickitat County Sheriff Chris Mace, who is working as an investigator.

None of the six had worked together in the past. They are meshing well, since everyone has a high level of experience and don’t need to spend time learning the ropes.

Howser, who formerly worked for a local firm that was contracted by the county to provide public defense, compared the last few weeks to starting a new law office.

Peterson said bringing in two additional criminal attorneys and an investigator will save the county approximately $200,000 a year.

Anyone who has watched a cop show has heard the phrase, “If you can’t afford an attorney than one will be appointed for you.” 

As that process has been streamlined and brought under the county’s auspices, a public defender will handle the arraignment process of every criminal case as a courtesy to the defendant.

Subsequently, the county examines the defendant’s background do determine if they qualify for a public defender. If they do not qualify, they may hire their own attorney or receive a bill for legal services.

While most people will hire their own attorney if they can afford to do so, hiring the public defender is a viable option for those who don’t have connections in the legal community.

Not only can it cost less than a private attorney, but it will provide a capable defense.

“The idea that you can’t get good service out of a public defender is a myth,” Peterson said. “These guys are dedicated and experienced.”

Silverthorn has heard all the insults, such as “public pretender,” and the questions about getting a real job. But he said there is nothing second rate about this particular office.

And Howser said that criminal law is the most stimulating and varied of all the available categories of lawyering.

Tibbeits said that Silverthorn and Howser were the best of more than 20 who showed interest in the positions, that the advertisement drew applicants “of tremendous quality.” This wasn’t really a surprise in today’s economy.

Even though the $70,000 salary is well south of the stereotypical lawyer’s pay, benefits and scenic surroundings make working in this office a valuable opportunity.

“I wouldn’t want this same job in Seattle,” Tibbits said. “Kitsap is a great place to work. And this office will become a hub of legal activity in the county.”

Tibbits said his office will be advocates for their clients, and make sure they get a fair shake under the law. He said that some innocent people are jailed, but the situation usually straightens itself out once the case comes before a judge.

“The system isn’t perfect,” he said. “The idea of innocent until proven guilty isn’t always applied. But it’s better than living under a system where you are automatically presumed guilty and the burden is to prove your innocence.”

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