In a blow to the struggling state public defender’s office, a state watchdog commission recommended today that the office be abolished in favor of a more efficient agency to represent indigents.
The Little Hoover Commission said the state’s cost of representing indigents who appeal criminal convictions has tripled, to $32 million, in the last six years, and at the same time more and more convicts have no attorney. The report said a single large agency could save money and better represent indigents.
“Without such reforms, the state’s appellate judicial system is in danger of becoming severely backlogged, delaying justice to appellants and society as a whole,” the commission, formally called the Commission on State Government Organization and Economy, said in its 40-page report. An advance copy was obtained by The Times.
State Public Defender Harvey Zall already was marshaling an effort to fight the proposed abolition of the $7.2-million-a-year office that he was appointed to run only six months ago. The commission’s plan would require legislation.
“The state public defender is an absolutely indispensable part of the criminal justice system,” Zall said. “It is wrong and I hope that the powers that be will disregard it. . . . I deserve an opportunity to deal with longstanding problems of the agency.”
Some judges and lawyers and the California Public Defenders Assn. also came to the office’s defense. Even so, the state public defender’s office has been wracked by low morale, the result of increasing numbers of losses before the state Supreme Court, past budget cuts and, in part, the appointment of Zall. Some lawyers who work in the office go so far as to say that its abolition would be preferable to its current state.
The Little Hoover Commission faulted the office for lack of productivity and backward office administration, along with high turnover. As a result, cases often are handed off to the lawyers who remain.
While the state public defender produces good work, the report said, in its best year, the office handled only 30% of the appeals filed in the state, and now is counsel in 10% of the cases on appeal--far short of its original goal of representing all indigents who appeal their criminal convictions.
Currently, the task of indigent appeals is handled by deputies in the public defender’s office, as well as private lawyers who are appointed by six agencies in the state called appellate projects that report to various courts of appeal.
As envisioned by the Little Hoover Commission, the new agency would still appoint private attorneys, and also would have a staff of lawyers to handle more complex appeals and death penalty cases.
The agency would save money because there would be a single administrative office, rather than separate administration for each appellate project and for the public defender. The Administrative Office of the Courts, answerable to Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas, would administer the agency. Lucas declined comment on the proposal.
The report said the Judicial Council, which sets policy for the courts and which is chaired by Lucas, should appoint the head of the new agency. That would mean a loss of power for the governor, who now appoints the public defender.
“California can’t afford to continue with its scattered, uncontrolled system of defending indigents,” Nathan Shapell, commission chairman, said in a statement.
“It isn’t fair to the defendants whose cases may be delayed or bounced from attorney to attorney. It isn’t fair to the state’s taxpayers, who pay for the overlapping and duplicative administration of these programs.”
The office represents more than half the people sentenced to life in prison without parole and 20% of the death penalty appeals. The report said the cases are the most complex in the justice system, but called it “disconcerting” that each deputy handles an average of only seven new cases each year. The office once had a goal of each deputy handling 24 cases a year.
Founded in 1975 in the more liberal days of the Administration of Edmund G. Brown Jr., the agency was intended to be to the defense bar what the attorney general is to the prosecution--a forceful advocate for the defense.
The office quickly became a target of conservative lawmakers, particularly in its early years when deputies gave seminars to inmates at San Quentin and Folsom prisons and lobbied against law-and-order legislation. Gov. George Deukmejian forced a reduction by half in the agency’s budget four years ago. It now has 49 attorneys.
Zall Given Credit
The commission credited Zall with trying to improve office efficiency. Commission member George E. Paras, a conservative former Court of Appeal justice, said in a statement that if Zall’s policies were in place when the office was founded, its future “would have been bright.”
“Now, it is hopeless,” Paras said, supporting the recommendation that a single court-run agency be created.