Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022 @ 1:49 p.m.
State Rep Cites Del Norte's Incarceration Rate, Urges County to Establish Public Defender's Office
• Public Defense in Del Norte County report
Del Norte County jailed more people per capita in 2018 than any other county in California, Laurel Arroyo, director of capacity building for the state’s Indigent Defense Improvement Division, told supervisors Tuesday.
The rate of women incarceration is three times higher than the state average in Del Norte County, she said. The percentage of people going to both jail and prison in Del Norte County is the third highest in California. And though Native Americans represent about 7 percent of the county’s population, they make up 22 percent of the population in the jail. It’s been that way since at least 1995, Arroyo told supervisors.
“Some might think that’s because we have more crime here in Del Norte County,” she said. “But when you look at the violent crime rate for the county, it is actually lower than the state average.”
Arroyo, who works for the Office of the State Public Defender, said county officials invited her to do an evaluation of the defense it provides to those who can’t afford an attorney.
After presenting her report to the Board of Supervisors, including her findings that the county’s current indigent defense system is lacking, Arroyo urged them to establish a formal public defender's office. She asked to help create a sample budget for the proposed office as well as a six-to-12-month transition plan. Arroyo and county staff will present that plan to county supervisors on Dec. 13.
Arroyo recommended the public defender’s office include a chief defender, four attorneys, administrative and legal support staff and an investigator.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for your community to really get it right, to provide better opportunities for your constituents,” Arroyo told supervisors. “Del Norte is in a strong position to be a statewide leader for small rural counties.”
California’s Indigent Defense Improvement Division was created by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2020 in response to Phillips v. The State of California, which sought to overhaul Fresno County’s public defense system. In response to that lawsuit, the state 2020-21 budget was expanded to include funding to improve indigent defense services that counties provide.
Arroyo’s evaluation of Del Norte County’s indigent defense services started with County Counsel Joel Campbell-Blair, according to County Administrative Officer Neal Lopez.
Arroyo’s office offered to visit the community, meet with stakeholders, evaluate its current structure and report to the Board of Supervisors on how the system can improve on the state’s dime, Lopez said.
In Del Norte, four local attorneys are contracted with the county to handle criminal cases, youth delinquency and conservatorships, Arroyo said. This doesn’t include two other attorneys who get reimbursed by the state and defend Pelican Bay inmates who are charged with crimes while in the prison.
The four local attorneys “each work for themselves,” according to Arroyo, and because of that there are no standards, oversight or training. Because there is no office or support staff, clients often have trouble reaching their attorneys and the only action the county can take against an attorney whose performance is unsatisfactory is terminating their contract, she said.
The current system also leads to a lack of coordination of services for jail inmates, Arroyo said. People cycle in and out of the jail system without getting their needs met. There is less jail space for those who have committed violent offenses and inmates don’t have a voice when it comes to coordinating solutions.
Arroyo’s report brought up concerns regarding a mentally ill inmate living in poor jail cell conditions.
“Public defenders have direct and current information as to what is happening in the jail because defenders visit the jail and regularly meet with their incarcerated clients,” Arroyo’s report states. “Multiple stakeholders complained that the jail is often full and that people with felony warrants are sometimes cited and released due to a lack of beds.”
The county’s practice of contracting with private attorneys to provide public defender services has been in place for about 20 years, Lopez told the Wild Rivers Outpost.
“We’ve never had issues that I’m aware of,” he said. “Having that assessment done has provided oversight. It’s one of those eye-openers for us to find a better way to do this.”
Arroyo’s report also mentions high case loads for Del Norte County attorneys who respond to felonies. Two of the four contract attorneys reported having between 245 and 305 clients, with many being felonies, as of June 2022. Her report mentioned the lawsuit in Fresno, and another in Shasta County, stating that high case loads “are one of the most watched aspects of indigent defense.”
In Del Norte, public defense is also the least funded branch of the county’s judicial system. In the county’s 2022-23 budget, public defense received $707,835, while the District Attorney’s budget was double that at about $1.5 million. The Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office received $2.7 million in funding for 2022-23 and the jail has been funded at $3.9 million, according to Arroyo’s report.
According to the California State Bar, there are 49 lawyers currently practicing in Del Norte County. Of those, 10 work with the Yurok Tribe, seven are with the District Attorney’s Office and three work with County Counsel Joel Campbell-Blair, Arroyo said.
Arroyo mentioned the Yurok Tribe, DA and county counsel as examples of structured offices capable of providing good leadership. This, she said, better enables Del Norte to recruit more attorneys.
“If you hire a chief defender, they can be the local expert on seeking out additional funding sources such as state and federal grants that are available to public defender offices,” Arroyo said. “You could also equalize your realignment money from AB 109 (jail realignment). If Measure R should pass, you could use that for some of the vital services. Biden has rolled out a Safer America Plan, which envisions using this for defense. The COVID American Rescue Act money could be used to fund a one-time transition plan such as computers or the lease and you could roll the Pelican Bay defenders in to use the state reimbursement funding to pay for an investigator or support staff.”
Though she recommended an institutionalized public defenders office, Arroyo mentioned a third system California counties such as San Luis Obispo and San Mateo use. A managed-assigned counsel system involves someone who is employed by the county — usually an attorney — who supervises other lawyers who are contracted with the county to provide public defense. This system also often involves a support staff and an investigator, she said.
“The advantages are you don’t have to pay county salaries of private attorneys,” Arroyo said. “The disadvantages are that you don’t have as much control over your attorneys. If you have private attorneys spending most of their time on private cases, they’re disincentivized to provide adequate and equal time on their indigent caseload.”
When presenting county supervisors with the different options for public defense that are available, Arroyo mentioned that Humboldt and Siskiyou counties both have institutionalized public defenders offices. But Board Chairman Gerry Hemmingsen noted that their jail admissions for 2018 aren’t that far behind Del Norte County at 11,299 and 11,149 per 100,000 residents respectively.
“We’re wanting to be more efficient and we’re wanting accountability, and I understand all that and that could be done through a public defenders office,” Hemmingsen said. “What I’m seeing here in the numbers is disappointing. I would expect smaller rural counties, that their numbers would be much lower because they have a public defenders office.”
Karen Olson and Elly Hoopes, two of the four attorneys contracted with the county to provide public defense, urged county supervisors to consider establishing a formal office.
“All of us are in support of at least looking into the idea of a traditional public defenders office or even that second tier,” Olson said, referring to the managed-assigned counsel system. “The way things are going now and all the new programs, mental health program, CARE program, four of us are not able to sustain the public services needed in this county for much longer.”
Hoopes, who was a public defender in Colorado and works primarily with misdemeanor and juvenile cases in Del Norte, said a stand alone agency is needed to monitor the jail and the courtrooms.
Hoopes also urged county supervisors to consider partnering with the Yurok Tribe, Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation and other local agencies to develop wellness programs that is beyond a traditional public defender.
“We have a group of people who are not heard,” Hoopes said. “One of the reasons we have such a degree of unanswered mental health and such a degree of juvenile issues is these people don’t know who to talk to. One of the (reasons) for having a PD system is you have someone who may have social workers, who may have investigators, who may have attorneys to delve into these issues.”