By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD — Steven Lewis, an attorney who has devoted most of his career to representing defendants who are unable to afford a lawyer, has been appointed chief public defender of the Kitsap County Office of Public Defense.
The Office of Public Defense provides attorneys to represent indigent individuals charged with felony crimes as well as misdemeanors and juvenile cases, dependencies and civil contempt hearings. Lewis oversees a team of eight public defenders who handle felony cases.
Lewis said he was pleased to be selected but admits the promotion is bittersweet.
“The biggest downside is I have to do fewer cases. What I love about the job is representing people in court. Now, that is going to be a less significant part of my job. I’m really going to miss that,” he said.
“I’ve always been really passionate about public defense. I really like the job and the fast pace. Every day is different. It’s not one of those jobs where you are looking at the clock wondering, when is this day going to end?”
Presiding Kitsap County Superior Court Judge Kevin Hall said Lewis is a good fit for the position. When Hall was a prosecutor, he opposed Lewis in several criminal cases.
“We are lucky to have someone with his experience,” Hall said. “It will be great working with him. He has always been very approachable. Steven works well with his clients. He is a good person and an excellent attorney.”
Lewis takes over following the retirement of former chief public defender Kevin Anderson. He said his office will be confronting several issues.
“The biggest issue in the next three or four months will be dealing with the excessive caseload that has built up due to COVID,” the new chief said.
Jury trials have been suspended in Kitsap County and this has slowed down the resolution of cases, Lewis said. Some of his attorneys are now carrying twice as many cases as they normally do, he added.
The county has several treatment courts – for veterans, drug court and behavior health court, which handles mental health-related cases. Those courts divert cases out of the standard courts and allow judges to focus on the root cause of misbehavior.
Prosecutors control which cases are allowed into these specialty courts, Lewis said.
“Where [prosecutors] draw the line on which cases are accepted seems arbitrary to us. We would like to push them to be more inclusive in these courts.”
Lewis said public defenders also plan to litigate a firearms issue that calls for defendants in domestic violence cases to turn over any firearms at the start of a case. In some instances, this requirement puts a client in the position of having to incriminate themselves by admitting they unlawfully possess firearms, Lewis said.
The public defender’s office will soon take up the constitutionally of the practice in the court of appeals, he said.
Lewis graduated from the University of Washington School of Law in 2004. During law school, Lewis worked with the Innocence Project, a renowned nonprofit organization that works to exonerate individuals it believes were wrongly convicted.