2003 to 2008
In January of 2003, The Nebraska Minority and Justice Task Force, a joint initiative of the Nebraska Supreme Court and the Nebraska State Bar Association, issued its Final Report. Dennis Keefe served on the task force for more than three years, He was then appointed by the Nebraska Supreme Court to serve on the Implementation Committee of the task force charged with implementing the recommendations that had made by the full task force, including improvements in the state's indigent defense system.
In 2003, the County Board funded the indigent screener project past the original pilot project term and placed supervision under the new Community Corrections Department.
There was also a proposal to support legislation to require a registration fee for individuals receiving court appointed counsel to fund this project.
In conjunction with the Douglas County Public Defender's Office and the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy, the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office sponsored death penalty training for felony attorneys in 2003. The Colorado State Public Defender's Office provided trainers on an expenses only basis.
Finally, in 2003,our office agreed to assist a SAMSA grant funded project designed to keep the mentally ill out of the county jail by providing intensive services. The project was jointly sponsored by Lancaster County Corrections and the Community Mental Health Center of Lincoln/Lancaster County.
The public defender's office was involved in the planning and implementation of both the Adult and Juvenile Drug Courts. Our office contributes significant amounts of attorney time to these programs on a weekly basis. Since those courts were implemented, Lancaster County also saw the implementation of a mental health jail diversion grant.
Late in 2004, Lancaster County Community Corrections implemented a pre trial release program. The Lancaster County Board of Commissioners funded the agency to provide supervision to pre trial felons who would otherwise be held in jail in an attempt to delay the time when an addition to the jail would be needed.
The Lancaster County Public Defender's Office experienced another caseload crisis in 2005 in two areas: misdemeanor cases increased 12% in a one year period and felony cases showed a 12% increase in a 2 year period. The felony case increase was driven primarily by 3 factors: an increase in possession of methamphetamine and cocaine cases; an increase in domestic violence cases made into felonies by the legislature; and a increase in the number of driving related offenses made into felonies by the legislature. In response, Dennis Keefe presented the County Board with a two phase plan that included taking back the Child Support and Paternity cases and combining that docket with the mental health commitment cases, and then increasing the part time attorney position to a full time position. Both phases of the plan were eventually approved.
There were a number of staff changes also in 2005. In September of that year, Julie Hansen left our office because she was hired by the Federal Public Defender of Nebraska. John Jorgensen started as a deputy defender in October of 2005 and Elizabeth Foster was hired to fill the new attorney position also in October of 2005.
The County Board accepted phase two of our two year plan and in July of 2006, our office resumed responsibility for the Child Support and Paternity cases from the former contractor, Susan Ugai. Dorothy Walker, a former public defender who was now working part time on mental health cases, went full time again and was assigned responsibility for the Child Support, Paternity and Mental Health cases. Also in 2006, Sarah Newell, a former law clerk for the office, joined us a deputy in the juvenile division.
At the end of 2007, Lancaster County contracted with the Policy Research Center of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, to analyze the time data and conduct an empirical workload study. Liz Neeley, a Senior Research Manager for the UNL Policy Research Center, was assigned to this task of the study.
2007 brought a number of staff changes. Andrea Snowden left and was replaced by Andrew Weeks, who had formerly been an attorney in a private firm in Norfolk, Nebraska. Reggie Ryder was appointed a judge of the Separate Juvenile Court by Governor Dave Heineman and left the office in August of 2007. Jennifer Houlden was hired in September of 2007 to replace Reggie Ryder and she began her service in the juvenile division.
2008 saw the culmination of several years of work coming together from two different sources, both initiatives of the Nebraska Supreme Court. The Eyes of The Child project eventually resulted in guidelines being adopted by the Nebraska Supreme Court for those who serve as guardians ad litem in the juvenile courts. The Minority Justice Committee, a joint project of the Nebraska Supreme Court and the Nebraska State Bar Association, also recommended a series of standards for attorneys who are appointed as counsel for indigents in adult criminal cases. After considering those standards for some time, in 2008, the Court announced that it was declining to promulgate standards in this area.
On January 1, 2008, the office officially migrated from our old mainframe case management information system, called GIDEON, to the new web-based system called defenderData. As with all change of this type, it did not come without headaches. However, by the end of the year, most staff had adjusted to the new system and procedures.
The public defender's office experienced three major changes in 2008. First, in late February of 2008, the offices moved into the remodeled Courthouse Plaza sharing space with Community Corrections. The public defender's office has reception and interview space on the first floor, the misdemeanor and juvenile divisions on the second floor and the felony division on the third floor. By the end of the year, we were just settling in to the new environs.
Perhaps of greatest significance to the long range interests of the office was the completion of the study of the workload of the public defender's office and the issuance of the report by the advisory committee. View the final version of the report (PDF).
After a presentation to the Lancaster County Board by Dennis Keefe and Dr. Elizabeth Neeley, the public defender's office studied the report and, in September, presented the office's response to the Board (PDF). The office implemented the caseload standards, as recommended by the advisory committee, on September 1, 2008. Dennis Keefe advised the Board that he would update them during future budget negotiations regarding the impact of the standards on legal services costs and the various options that the Board will have.