Don’t Privatize the Public Defender’s Office
As the county budget continued to melt down and the Board of Supervisors voted to place a charter amendment on the June ballot to make privatizing Fresno County jobs way easier, an expert panel told the supervisors not to privatize the Public Defender’s Office.
The expert panel, made up of a former head of the office, a retired Superior Court administrator and a federal defender administrator, found the office has the “capacity to deliver quality criminal defense services to the indigent accused in Fresno County if the panel’s recommendations” were implemented. The panel also agreed that, once recommended changes were successfully made, the outside contract for conflict defense services be eliminated and a consolidated public defender and conflicts office be implemented.
Jose Villarreal, Francine Zepeda and Sandra Silva looked at the areas of leadership, internal controls, use of technology, training and skill development, litigation support and declinations at the request of County Administrative Officer John Navarette. The trio interviewed numerous public defender staff who provided comments in several areas, including the office’s mission, declaring unavailability, leadership and management issues, and distractions. They interviewed more than 30 staff members, as well as 12 superior court judges, District Attorney Elizabeth Egan and Public Defender Kenneth Taniguchi.
Public defender staff believe the legal service they provide is client-oriented: “It’s about the client.” The practice of “doing more with less” is ingrained in staff and “goes back to the days when the office would recycle used file folders and paper clips that other county departments would throw away.”
Staff also believe the leadership and management issues “must be addressed in the context of administrative direction and support.” They spoke of broken lines of communication between management and staff. Some indicated that management is out of touch with the rest of the staff and felt this was due to the top managers not being actively involved in casework. They cited as an example of management inefficiency that job assignments, “especially as these relate to attorneys, do not reflect staff abilities. Highly skilled attorneys who were carrying out training and doing legal research are now assigned to carry out what are considered to be ‘mundane’ duty assignments.”
The major distraction according to staff is the possible demise of the office. It has generated rumor mill activities, created factions within the office and has caused more personnel grievances to be filed. “Notwithstanding these ‘distractions,’ staff feel that the attitude of the staff is one of ‘I love my job’ and will endure and overcome any potential negative impact.”
The judges support the existence of the office. They find the attorneys in the office provide a good service to the court, good service to clients, service to each other and service to the District Attorney’s Office. One of the judges “opposes privatization of legal representation of indigent defendants” and is concerned that the level of representation will decline and put criminal convictions in jeopardy. Another judge expressed concern that the “quality of justice in Fresno County will decline if the balance between the District Attorney and the Public Defender is altered.”
The judges feel that the attorneys from the Public Defender’s Office are more prepared on their cases, more knowledgeable in the applicable law and that their cases have been well investigated. These attorneys are better prepared in “sophisticated or complicated cases and the level of experience of the assigned attorney generally matches the level of the case. As a whole, when compared to conflict attorneys, the judges stated that Public Defender attorneys are more likely to have interviewed their clients at the jail and do not slow the court proceedings down by trying to interview defendants in the courtroom.”
However, the office does not have adequate staff to support their legal representation of defendants. Right now, there is only one legal secretary who supports all 56 attorneys in the office. Attorneys are forced to do clerical work, such as entering case information in the office’s computerized case management system.
Because of staff reductions due to repeated budget cuts beginning in July 2007, the office was forced to decline cases starting in January 2010. The number of cases declined has varied from three to 110 in a given month. The court has assigned various private attorneys to handle these cases. From January 2010 until mid-February 2011, the cost to the county has been approximately $530,000.