Panel Assails New Plan for Defense of Poor

Times Staff Writer

The commission recommending an overhaul of San Diego County's system for providing criminal defense to indigents lashed out at the county's chief defender Tuesday, labeling his competing proposal seriously deficient.

In a sign that debate on the arcane, multimillion-dollar issue will be brisk, Melvin Nitz, head of the county's Office of Defender Services, fired a shot back at the county-funded blue-ribbon commission, saying its plan is the product of "ivory tower boys" out to "hoodwink" county supervisors.

The commission Tuesday issued its final report on indigent defense, a slightly revised version of a draft report last month that urged the county to scrap its contract defense system and replace it with a quasi-public defender office.

Under the contract system, widely criticized by legal experts, the county pays private lawyers to defend the more than 30,000 indigents accused of crimes each year in San Diego County's superior, municipal and juvenile courts. Critics say the quality of contract defense sometimes is suspect and that the system has proved unable to cap the skyrocketing costs of indigent counsel.

In its place, the commission proposes a "community defender office" of salaried lawyers employed by a nonprofit board that would receive a grant from the county each year to provide indigent defense.

The final report for the first time includes a rough cost estimate of the proposal, placing the price tag for a community defender office at $14 million per year.

Though the sum is 10% more than the $12.7 million estimated cost for the current system this year, the commission says it is no more than what it would cost to operate the contract system with the supervision, screening, training and adequate pay it says are lacking.

Nitz confirmed Tuesday that he has submitted to the county's chief administrative office a proposal for a traditional public defender office of salaried county employees with an estimated annual budget of $10.7 million--about 24% less than the commission's proposal and 16% below current costs.

The commission report blasts Nitz's plan, saying it requires lawyers to bear excessive caseloads and fails to improve on the feeble supervision and training afforded under the existing system. "It appears to be a budget which would likely ensure that the county's current deficient system would simply be replaced by another one," the commission says.

But, in an interview, Nitz said the commission had failed to provide specifics to support its budget estimate.

"I based mine on looking at the caseload, looking at the type of work involved, looking at 18 years of being a public defender," he said. "They have these ivory tower boys who sit back and don't take a practical approach. They say, 'You should only be able to handle X number of cases.' You can't say that."

For instance, Nitz proposes that lawyers in Juvenile Court handle 546 cases per year. A plan prepared for the commission by the National Legal Aid & Defender Assn. says 250 cases per year is the appropriate caseload. Where Nitz proposes a load of 533 cases per year for lawyers handling misdemeanors, the association says 450 cases is appropriate.

Glenn Warren, executive director of the commission, said Tuesday that Nitz's proposal is the latest in a line of budget plans that have understated the county's costs for indigent defense.

"People have been telling the supervisors that they can save money for a number of years now and it just hasn't happened, because the budgets have been entirely unrealistic," Warren said.

Nitz, however, said it was the commission that was misleading the supervisors with its suggestion that its "non-public public defender office" would have advantages over the more conventional public defender office he proposes.

"I think they're trying to hoodwink the board by saying (they) won't have any kind of civil service requirements and retirement benefits," Nitz said.

Norman Hickey, the county's chief administrative officer, issued a statement Tuesday saying he would review all the reports and issue a recommendation to supervisors within 60 days.

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