Time to Heed the Experts

After 10 years of false starts, studies, proposals and counterproposals, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors is on the brink of a decision that should significantly improve the county's inadequate and increasingly expensive indigent defense system.

The board faces a tough choice this week between two alternatives, each of which has the potential of providing better legal counsel for the 30,000 indigent cases handled each year.

The current system has been "inadequate to ensure quality representation" and one that emphasizes "cost control at the expense of quality representation," according to a prestigious panel of judges and lawyers appointed by the supervisors two years ago. The much-criticized system is characterized by a small staff of public defenders that handles some cases, while most are contracted to private attorneys.

The blue-ribbon panel recommended a nonprofit community defenders organization that would be directed by a board of trustees appointed by the Board of Supervisors and the San Diego County Bar Assn. Under the proposal, which is modeled after the well-respected Federal Defenders program and is widely supported in the legal community, 168 attorneys would provide legal defense for most poor people for an estimated annual cost of $14.2 million.

But the county's top administrators have argued for expanding the public defender's office, a more traditional route used by 43 of the nation's 50 largest counties. The county says it can do the job with 128 attorneys for about $11.5 million.

Cost is an important consideration, and it is worth noting that both proposals offer significant cost reductions over the present system. But, the sticker price should not be the first consideration, as it apparently has been for too many years. Quality legal representation, a right of all who are accused of crimes, must be the controlling factor.

Both the public defender approach and the proposal for a nonprofit organization are capable of providing quality legal counsel if comparably staffed. But the county Office of Defender Services has not taken the lead in advocating much-needed improvements, and has ignored its own advisory board, which argues that 160 attorneys are needed.

Instead, the leadership role has been assumed by the legal community.

We believe this is one time to listen to the experts, and to do justice to San Diego County's justice system. A properly staffed, nonprofit community defenders office is more likely to correct past negligence, and may even make the county imitated rather than ridiculed.

Some compromise in the number of attorneys may be warranted, but we disagree with the county's contention that justice requires that the number of defense attorneys not exceed the number of prosecutors.

While the community defender approach may be the path less often taken, we believe it will provide a strong voice for indigent defense and is a worthwhile step in the name of improved justice.

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