ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE : Stand Firm on Public Defender Decision

In the last few years, private attorneys were paid nearly $9 million each year from county funds to represent defendants too poor to hire their own lawyers but ineligible to have a deputy public defender. The county's declaration of bankruptcy in December effectively ended the practice. The Board of Supervisors correctly told the public defender's office to set up a second branch to handle the cases that used to be farmed out to the private lawyers; it was a necessary cost-cutting measure. Now, with that program still in its infancy, the private attorneys have come hammering on the supervisors' doors again to seek new contracts, in effect trying to undo the county's experiment with handling cases in-house. The supervisors should stand firm.

One lawyer, William W. Stewart, for 15 years held a contract to supply attorneys to the Orange County Central Court in cases that posed a conflict of interest for public defenders. Last year a number of judges complained of delays caused by unavailability of many of the lawyers supplied by Stewart. Stewart declined to give up the contract, which was worth about $700,000 in a year. Now he is one of a number of lawyers trying to get new contracts from the supervisors. However, the public defender already has set up a second office to handle nearly all those cases. Handing them back to private lawyers would cost the county a substantial sum.

San Diego County switched from private attorneys to public defenders in all but a few cases several years ago and reported that the new system worked better. Los Angeles County recently followed suit in an effort to cut costs. Both illustrate the assessment based on cost analysis that it is not always cheaper to have private individuals or companies do government work. Cost-cutting, the rationale behind the Orange County revamping, has become more pressing with the new proposed county budget for next year. That economic blueprint seeks to trim $7.4 million from the public defender office's original budget for this year, $33.2 million.

Even more troubling is the way private attorneys seeking county work propose to earn their money. They are seeking to take the easiest matters--misdemeanor cases and felony probation violations, which state law now bars them from handling. There is no evidence that having private attorneys take the easy cases and leave the public defenders with the hard ones would save money.

The U.S. Constitution requires that criminal defendants be provided lawyers. Orange County's fiscal straits require saving money, and the new system in the public defender's office is likely to do that. The supervisors should stick to the revamped program and see how it works.

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