OLYMPIA – A new bill to address inequities in the criminal justice system was signed into law by Gov. Inslee today. SB 5046, sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Saldaña (D-Seattle), authorizes the Office of Public Defense (OPD) to provide postconviction access to counsel to people who can’t afford it.

Personal restraint petitions are essential in challenging unjust criminal judgments and sentences, but not everyone has equal access to legal representation in these complex and high-stakes postconviction proceedings. With at least 80 percent of those charged with felonies unable to afford an attorney and a significant portion of incarcerated people having cognitive or physical disabilities, this bill expands access to legal counsel to provide equal access to justice. It allows OPD to help those who cannot do it for themselves, particularly juveniles, those who are mentally disabled, have limited English proficiency, or who are serving long sentences.

The bill authorizes OPD to provide access to counsel for certain impoverished adults and juveniles to file and prosecute one timely personal restraint petition, challenge a conviction or sentence, or petition a sentencing court when the opportunity arises. It also requires OPD to examine and evaluate barriers to providing postconviction counsel and report findings and recommendations to the Legislature.

“It is crucial that everyone, regardless of their financial situation, has access to the legal representation they need for fair access to justice,” Saldaña said. “This new law is a step towards creating a more equitable system and ensuring that justice is served for all Washingtonians.”

By allowing appointment of counsel in these cases, the bill ensures that these petitioners are not unfairly burdened with correcting potential injustices on their own. The bill also saves costs by promoting efficiency within courts through reducing delays and avoiding frivolous filings.