Two out of three defendants charged with crimes in Orange County each year are too poor to pay for their own lawyer, yet they are entitled constitutionally to be represented by an attorney. With the cost for defending indigents climbing to nearly $30 million, the county is correct to review the system to see if there's a way to do it more cheaply while still protecting the rights of the accused.
Orange County Public Defender Ronald Y. Butler wisely has postponed a plan to refuse to represent some poor defendants one day each month. Butler did refuse once, arguing that the lawyers in his office were so overworked that they could not defend new clients adequately and would be even more overburdened if planned budget cuts took effect. About 100 defendants were affected and wound up being represented by higher-priced private attorneys who contract with the county.
While Butler was right to postpone any repetition of the refusal, he would be better off scrapping the whole idea and instead bringing his considerable experience and expertise to working with the county in its study of indigent defense.
The county does not have a precise handle, in terms of dollars and cents, on whether it would be better off with more public defenders on staff or by farming work out. It needs those answers before it can make decisions.
Contract attorneys are used when the public defender has a conflict of interest, such as cases with multiple defendants. Those cases are usually more complicated and by their nature cost more.
This will not be the first time the county has examined the issue. Two years ago officials could not predict the amount of long-term savings if they established a second public defender's office, independent of the existing one, and if they did away with contracts with private attorneys in all but a handful of cases.
This time they need to get to the bottom line and study other counties' experiences in defending the poor. In difficult economic conditions the issue must be looked at again, because the county needs to cut costs wherever it can.