Los Angeles budget cuts may end some city attorney programs

Raymond Chavez sat down at a legal clinic at the Midnight Mission on skid row Wednesday afternoon with two jaywalking tickets in his hand.

Chavez, 56, who is homeless, said he didn’t have the cash to pay the citations when they were issued last year and he had missed the hearings where he could have contested them. The fines had since ballooned to $821 and led to a warrant for his arrest.

A city attorney who listened to his story quickly offered a deal: The citations would be dismissed if Chavez attended seven hours of counseling at one of several social service providers.

The legal clinic is part of a program launched by the city attorney’s office in 2007 to help lighten the load on the criminal justice system. The attorneys who run Homeless Alternatives for People Living on the Street, or HALO, say that by diverting homeless offenders from jails to treatment programs, they cut court costs and help stop the cycle of poverty that keeps people on the streets.

But Wednesday’s clinic may have been the last. All their skid row services could fall victim to citywide budget cuts, they say, along with a host of other programs they believe are vital to preventing crime.

If the city attorney’s office is forced to cut positions -- the City Council voted last week to eliminate 4,000 municipal jobs -- domestic violence education, a neighborhood prosecutor program and antigang and antitruancy work might have to be sacrificed so the office can continue its “core mission” of prosecuting misdemeanor crimes and defending civil lawsuits filed against the city, said Chief Deputy City Atty. William W. Carter.

“We don’t know what, if any, cuts this office is going to suffer,” Carter said. “But if we suffer additional budget cuts, we will not be able to engage in and support very effective crime prevention programs.”

When the Los Angeles City Council voted last month to eliminate 1,000 municipal jobs by July 1, city analysts called for 100 cuts in the city attorney’s office.

City Atty. Carmen Trutanich strongly resisted that call, contending that the cuts would not be necessary because his office planned to meet budget targets through attrition, transfers and other reductions.

The office currently has 780 staffers whose salaries come from the general fund, and 30 of them are being transferred to specially-funded positions, Carter said.

“We consider these programs a necessity,” said Bruce Riordan, head of Trutanich’s antigang operations, who said the gang-injunction unit and graffiti prosecutors positions could get cut. “But some consider it a luxury.”

Gary Blasi, a UCLA professor who studies homelessness, said that while the citation clinic work is compassionate, it does nothing to combat the larger problem of homeless people being cited for minor infractions. “Of all the city’s options, cutting funding for city lawyers who dismiss tickets that should not have been written in the first place is probably a good idea,” Blasi said.

He estimates that around 40,000 citations for infractions have been issued since 2006, when the city added 50 police officers in downtown L.A. as part of its Safer City Initiative.

But Songhai Miguda-Armstead, the assistant supervising city attorney who helps run the skid row programs, said eliminating programs like HALO is a human rights issue -- as well as a matter of public safety.

“These are tons of people who won’t be able to get back on their feet without our help, and some of them will be a danger,” she said. “We can forget about them now, but they’ll be breaking into our houses tomorrow.”

Anthony Moore was at the citation clinic Wednesday to tell the hundreds of homeless people who had lined up about the Union Rescue Mission, where he now works.

A year and a half ago, Moore was homeless and addicted to crack. He got clean, he said, because of a HALO program called Streets or Services that gives people arrested for misdemeanors the chance to avoid jail time by completing a 21-day program at a homeless shelter.

“It changed everything for me,” Moore said.

Times staff writer Maeve Reston contributed to this report.