County Is Urged to Create a Public Defender Office

Times Staff Writer

Sticking doggedly to a position they have held since mid-1986, San Diego County's top administrators Tuesday urged the Board of Supervisors to create an in-house public defender office to represent low-income defendants in criminal cases.

In a report to the board, Assistant Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen argued that a traditional, county-run public defender system would be more efficient and economical than a competing proposal for a novel "community defender office" operated by a nonprofit organization.

But more than a dozen attorneys, judges and scholars--whose names read like a "Who's Who" of the San Diego legal community--disagreed. During a 90-minute hearing, they advised the supervisors to choose the less orthodox option of naming Community Defenders Inc. as the successor to the county's existing, much maligned system of representing indigents accused of crimes.

Criticizing the county's current Office of Defender Services for a legacy of poor leadership and budget overruns, supporters of the Community Defenders alternative pledged to provide high-quality representation along with accountability and fiscal conservatism.

"If you elect to go with Community Defenders today, you have my commitment that we will live within our budget," said E. Miles Harvey, a San Diego lawyer who is chairman of Community Defenders' board of trustees. "We will give the county the best bang for its buck in indigent defense--not a 'Cadillac defense' but the most economical and efficient defense possible."

Faced with the conflicting testimony, the supervisors decided to postpone a decision until next week. But at least one board member, Supervisor Susan Golding, said in an interview that she favors the community defender alternative.

"I was open-minded, and I want the week to digest all the analysis, but there appear to be distinct advantages in going with the nonprofit system," Golding said. "One major advantage is that should the community defender approach not be successful, we can always disband it and go with the public defender. But once you go with the public defender, it would become part of the county bureaucracy and that would be very hard to undo."

Can Use Experts

Golding said she also liked the nonprofit approach because it will "allow us to pull in experts from the community to help us run this system, which has really been a problem for the county in the past."

The board has wrestled for a decade with the challenge of balancing the high costs of indigent defense with the county's mandate to provide competent counsel for the more than 30,000 poor people accused of crimes annually.

In recent years, San Diego's hybrid system of using contracted private attorneys and a small staff of civil service lawyers has come under sharp attack from national legal experts who say it provides inadequate representation.

In 1986, a blue-ribbon commission of lawyers and judges recommended junking the existing hodgepodge system and replacing it with a nonprofit organization directed by an independent board of trustees. The supervisors approved the idea in concept nearly two years ago and agreed to begin negotiations with Community Defenders Inc., which was formed to take over the job.

Traditional Choice Pushed

But through it all, top county administrators have pushed for creation of a traditional public defender office--a choice that 43 of the nation's 50 largest counties have made.

In a report to supervisors Tuesday, Janssen recommended the establishment of a public defender's office staffed by 128 attorneys. He proposed an estimated budget of $11.5 million annually, plus another $3 million for "conflicts cases"--multiple-defendant cases in which legal ethics require the hiring of a private attorney.

Only one person testified in support of that staff recommendation Tuesday, the general manager of the San Diego county Employees Assn., Wyleen Luoma.

Proponents of the community defender option, meanwhile, insisted that 128 attorneys is too few to handle the caseload. A spokesman for the county's own advisory board on indigent defense agreed, concluding that the minimum number of lawyers needed to meet the caseload demand is 160.

168-Lawyer Office

Community Defenders has proposed a 168-lawyer office with a tentative annual budget of $14.2 million. The county has budgeted about $19.7 million for indigent defense in the current fiscal year.

"When you go out and contract for a bridge, you make sure the contractor will have enough steel and concrete to build that bridge," said Alex Landon, executive director of Community Defenders Inc. "The same is true with indigent defense. Without enough steel and concrete the bridge will fall down."

Another issue dividing the two proposals is whether the defense attorneys will be paid the same as deputy district attorneys. Those pushing the community defenders plan say they will not participate in the system if defense attorneys do not receive salaries on par with those of prosecutors, and their budget proposals have been contingent upon that.

"To not have parity is to say let's pay more money to put people in jail than to keep them out," Harvey said. "If that's our county's sense of justice, then we want no part of it."

The board will reconsider the proposals on Tuesday.

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