Criminal Defense Plans Equal, County Is Told

Times Staff Writer

San Diego County supervisors looking for expert guidance in overhauling the county's embattled criminal defense system have received little help from an official advisory board, which has reported finding "no measurable difference" economically between two competing plans.

In a letter to board Chairman Brian Bilbray, the county's Indigent Defense Advisory Board also insisted late last week that an adequate level of criminal defense would cost more than county officials have said they would like to spend.

The supervisors are weighing proposals from the county's own Office of Defender Services and from Community Defenders Inc., a nonprofit corporation, to take over the task of representing the 40,000 county residents each year who are accused of crimes but are unable to afford private defense attorneys.

Though the board a year ago endorsed in principle giving the job to a semi-independent, nonprofit group, challenges from a county employee association and a change in the County Charter prompted the board to reconsider keeping the assignment in-house.

Evaluation of Plans

As required by the charter change, Chief Administrative Officer Norman Hickey is conducting an evaluation to determine which plan is more efficient and economical; only if an outside group can meet both criteria does the charter allow the county to contract out basic services. The supervisors, meantime, asked their advisory board for its opinion of the budgets and staffing plans proposed by the competing agencies.

The result: The advisory board determined that either the outside or in-house group could do the job, if either were funded adequately by the county.

"The two proposals are so similar in cost and staff that there is no measurable difference between them," wrote Carlsbad attorney Diane Campbell, chairwoman of the advisory board.

Further, the advisory panel agreed with both Community Defenders Inc. and the Office of Defender Services that the defense job could not be done adequately at the 128-lawyer staffing level at which the county asked both groups to submit budgets.

The nonprofit group's latest, $13.5-million budget called for employing 168 lawyers, while the in-house agency's $13-million budget would require 141 attorneys. According to the advisory board, the minimum number of lawyers needed to meet the county's caseload is 160.

Campbell said Monday that the supervisors ultimately will have to make a philosophical, rather than an economic, decision about the course to take in changing the indigent defense system--currently a unique hybrid of in-house public defenders and contracted private lawyers that has come under harsh criticism from local, state and national evaluators.

"You still have a basic, philosophical difference between a nonprofit organization and a public defender," Campbell said. "The bottom line is: Do you want an organization that's a government bureaucracy, or do you want this handled by a private, nonprofit corporation?"

County supervisors are expected to take the issue up once again at a meeting next month.

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