Nebraska Indigent Defense Task Force Study
In October of 1992, based upon a grant application written by Dennis R. Keefe, the State court Administrator's Office received a federal grant from the Nebraska Crime Commission to conduct a first ever study of Nebraska's indigent defense system. The money was used to hire a national research/consulting firm, The Spangenberg Group, to conduct the study.
Chief Justice Hastings appointed a 36 person Task Force to oversee the work of the consultant, to review the findings and make recommendations for change. N.S.B.A provided administrative support to the Task Force and a number of N.S.B.A. leaders were members of the Task Force, including Harold Rock of Omaha who served as chair, Bob Spire and Immediate Past President, John Brownrigg. Judges from all court levels, public defenders, prosecutors and practitioners were also represented on the Task Force.
The Task Force and its subcommittee met numerous times over the course of the study, reviewed the findings of The Spangenberg Group and made recommendations to improve Nebraska's indigent defense system including, the following:
- Establish a Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy. Currently, Nebraska is one of only six states which provide no state funds for indigent defense. While the counties would retain their current right to establish the type of system they want (with only minor changes), the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy would:
- Set standards for each type of indigent defense system. The counties would be eligible for some state reimbursement if they meet the standards.
- Provide direct legal assistance upon request of the public defender, assigned counsel or the court and subject to caseload limits, in appeals, capital cases and other major crimes.
- Provide a resource center for public defenders and assigned counsel.
- Establish a Litigation Support Fund which could be used by public defenders and assigned counsel to find and pay for services of experts and investigators.
- Allow the Supreme Court to establish uniform standards and guidelines for determining who is indigent. The Task Force found that the process for determining who is indigent varied from court to court and county to county. The legislation would allow for:
- A $40 fee payable by all individuals with appointed counsel at the beginning of the case. This fee could be waived.
- A new category of "indigent but able to contribute" which would allow the court to require additional up front fees if the clients are able to pay.
- Lower the population levels for counties at which public defenders must be full time employees.
- Change the method of selecting policy boards for contract public defenders.
- Prohibit county attorneys from involvement in selecting contract public defenders and reviewing assigned counsel requests for expert assistance or fee billings.
- These changes would be funded by
- Devoting the 10% which the clerk currently retains from bail bond deposits to the Commission on Public Advocacy.
- Increase civil and criminal filing fees by $2.
- Retain $3 costs currently devoted as court automation fee to indigent defense beginning in 1997.
- $40 reduced fee from all clients who can pay.
- Additional contributions by clients who can pay.
"The changes that are recommended are designed to improve the indigent defense delivery system in this state," Rock told the House of Delegates. "We must make sure that the services provided to indigents are of the quality which the Constitution demands. By establishing standards and asking the state to join with the counties in funding the system, we will advance the fair administration of justice," he added.
Dennis R. Keefe was re-elected to his fifth and sixth terms as Lancaster County Public Defender in 1994 and 1998. Scott P. Helvie was reappointed as the Chief Deputy for the office. In 1994, Keefe was also appointed, by the President of the American Bar Association, to the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense (SCLAID). He served on that committee for 5 years and served as the Chair of the Bar Information program of SCLAID which provides technical assistance to state and local bar associations and governments to assist in improving indigent defense systems.
Keefe was also presented with two awards during the 1990s. The Nebraska State Bar Foundation awarded its Public Service Award to Keefe in 1995. The award was to recognize Keefe's attempts to improve the state of indigent defense in Nebraska and was presented to him at a dinner at the Lincoln Country Club in early 1996. Keefe was also presented with the Nebraska State Bar Association's Award of Special Merit at the 1999 Annual meeting of the NSBA, in recognition of his service in advancing the legal profession, the administration of justice, and the public interest.