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Del Norte Supes Agree to Restructure Public Defense System, Saying They Hope to Lighten High Caseloads
- Despite Acknowledging Need, Del Norte Supes Balk At Cost of Overhauling Public Defense System
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Four supervisors on Tuesday voted to create a public defenders’ office they hope will lighten the load for the four contracted private attorneys Del Norte County relies on.
Though it’s not the full public defender’s office a state representative recommended in October, it does include hiring a county public defender to oversee the department and share the burden.
The basic managed assigned counsel (MAC) system the Board approved also includes hiring a legal secretary, contracting with an investigator and implementing a centralized case management system. Creating the basic MAC structure will cost about $1.067 million, county staff said.
But District 5 Supervisor Dean Wilson, a former Del Norte County sheriff, continued to oppose the plan, saying he thinks it’s “a little too much.”
“(After) talking with the courts, talking with the DA, talking with those involved, I would be more supportive of adding a fifth public defender, one that’s particularly assigned to felony cases, as that’s where some of the problem is bogged down, and having a contract investigator,” Wilson said. “But at this point, to go as far as this proposal is, I can’t support it.”
In October, Laurel Arroyo, director of capacity building for the Office of the State Public Defender’s Indigent Defense Improvement Division, told supervisors that Del Norte County jailed more people per capita in 2018 than any other county in California.
The percentage of people going to both jail and prison in Del Norte County is the third highest in California. Native Americans represent about 22 percent of the population in jail, though they make up roughly 7 percent of the county population, Arroyo said in October.
“Some might think that’s because we have more crime here in Del Norte County,” she told supervisors. “But when you look at the violent crime rate for the county, it is actually lower than the state average.”
In Del Norte County, four private attorneys are contracted to handle criminal cases, youth delinquency cases and conservatorships, Arroyo said.
Each work for themselves, and because of that, there are no standards, oversight or training. With no office or support staff, clients often have trouble reaching their attorneys and the only action the county can take against a lawyer whose performance is unsatisfactory is terminating their contract, she said.
High case loads also make it difficult for those four private attorneys to provide an adequate public defense, Arroyo said. To provide adequate representation, an attorney should handle between 54 and 74 felony cases at one time, she said.
In March, County Administrative Officer Neal Lopez said attorneys handling felonies have a caseload of more than 200 each. Those handling misdemeanor cases are often juggling 130 cases each.
The county pays about $650,000 annually for the current system with the money coming out of its general fund, Lopez said Tuesday. Adding a fifth attorney as well as investigative services and a case management system — billed in the staff report as an enhanced contract structure — would cost about $833,000 annually.
“I would like to add that having a public defender’s office, a county public defender’s office, also makes us eligible for additional funding,” Lopez told supervisors. “We know we’ve missed out on some funding over the past couple of years that we (would be) eligible for for county public defender offices not contract systems like we have now.”
Lopez said the state may also provide grant dollars for all indigent defense services including the contract system Del Norte operates under now.
The chief public defender the county hires would share the caseload and be the primary contact for assigning cases, Lopez said.
Lopez said his staff discussed the basic managed assigned counsel structure with the current public defenders and Del Norte County’s presiding judge, who are all supportive.
Elly Hoopes, a local attorney who handles misdemeanor and juvenile cases, advocated for a centralized system. She also argued that having access to social workers as well as investigators would help get defendants suffering from mental illness and drug addiction the help they need.
“If you look at the District Attorney’s office, they do obviously have investigators, social workers and things like that,” she said. “It means issues can be resolved better and that you have experts in those areas that can take care of those things rather than just having and paying an attorney who may not have the oversight or experience to be able to deal with some of it.”
Hoopes said with the current system getting the money to pay for a social worker, an investigator or an expert witness requires an ex parte communication with the judiciary.
“You’re going to have to reveal your case to the judiciary and that is inappropriate,” she said. “There are ways a centralized public defender office can make it so all of those things are taken care of.”
The proposed new public defender’s system didn’t sit well with every member of the public, however. Sam Strait referred to Del Norte County’s Measure R — the 1 percent sales tax measure voters approved in 2020 that paid for police, fire, infrastructure repairs and emergency services. He questioned the sense of creating a new office to serve “a segment of the population.”
“It seems like it would be more prudent to scale back your aspirations for increasing the scale of the District Attorney’s office and perhaps looking into the hiring of an additional public defender to not just specifically address one segment of the population, but perhaps the entire population,” Strait said.
District 2 Supervisor Valerie Starkey used her experience in the Sonoma County probation office to argue in favor of creating a public defender’s office.
“Our chief public defenders often try cases. That is one extra person that is actually going to be there,” she said. “With having an office, there is the ability to co-share cases too, so when one is sick the other can fill in. It helps not to delay the whole process, which costs money to somebody.”
District 3 Supervisor Chris Howard said his solution was similar to Wilson’s — hiring a fifth public defender. He said he didn’t realize that a chief public defender the county hires would help support the case load.
Howard said he wanted to make sure the chief public defender reports back to the Board of Supervisors and is clear about what their expectations will be.
“I think this contract piece specifically for investigation and (a) legal secretary will help support and hopefully allow for the diversion we need to see to get these people in wraparound services through DHHS to allow some treatment,” Howard said.