Lassen County Public Defender’s Office vs. Lassen County Superior Court
Report to Board of Supervisors,
Ronald L. Wood, February 19, 2013
Also published as:: Public defense fails in Lassen County
Letter to the Editor, Lassen County Times, February 26, 2013
Re: Trial Court Funding Act
The Lassen County Public Defender’s Office is mandated by the State of California with providing legal defense free of charge to individuals residing in Lassen County who are charged with criminal offenses and who are not capable of paying for their own legal defense.
Public defense in Lassen County is failing to meet this standard. What is observed in the courts is both the Superior Court appointed attorneys and the Public Defender’s Office by offering little or no evidence to the court, often by silently sitting on their hands during criminal court proceedings while facing the District Attorney’s prosecution.
In the last several years both the Grand Jury and this Board have raised concerns over the operations of the Public defender’s Office compliance with the statutes established by the State of California. The central question does not only lied with the public defender’s office but both agencies providing adequate legal representation to individuals that reside in Lassen County.
Unfortunately, today individuals charged with a criminal offense in our County will more likely than not receive less than adequate defense. The problem is linked to the County’s funding process for this activity but goes far beyond the matter of expense. Our appropriated public defense monies are currently being divided between the Public Defender’s Office and a Superior Court appointed attorney process. This division of County public defense funds and function (attorneys) has several undesirable consequences.
First, it should be recognized that Court’s appointed attorney process has no connection to the Public Defender’s Office. This separation obviously reduces the resources of the Public Defender. But at the same time, it poses a major concern over the lack of separation between the appointed court attorneys and the Court. This special arrangement clearly upsets the necessary checks and balances of the judicial process.
The majority of the legal defense being provided in Lassen County is through the court appointed attorneys group and not by the Public Defender Office. Neither the Public Defender nor anyone else has a legal obligation to oversee the court appointed attorneys work product. Attorneys are paid by the court’s Consolidated Courts Indigent Defense Fund and not through the Public Defender’s budget.
In Lassen County, the court appointed “Public Defenders” is a very small group of attorneys. Both their participation (paycheck) and performances are subject to only the court. It is easy to see that this relationship makes them potentially more beholden to the court than their clients. This unnatural relationship may aid the court in streamlining their process and costs but it also streamlines out the rights of the accused to an adequate and fair defense.
The assignment of court attorneys is designed in a way that presents very little resistance from the court appointed defense attorneys when facing the District Attorney. How could it otherwise when the attorneys are employed by the court and are paid by that same the court? This begs the question, how can the court assign an attorney from its own group to provide legal defense and then stand over the judgment in the same case?
The above report is based on my personal observations and what little information is actually available regarding those needing assistance of public defense. This is particularly true with regard to the court services where virtually no information is available to those outside the court doors.
The presumption is that this court driven and controlled system works impartially to support indigent clients despite any public oversight. There are no transparency to the backroom process. Unfortunately this system is propped up by our California state court system.
There continues to be issues of adequate representation for the public defense of indigent clients within the Lassen County Court. Expanding or reorganizing the Public Defender’s Office will do very little if anything to address this concern.
There are no real arguments for retaining this county service, especially when so much of this task is managed directly by the Superior Courts and its own appointed attorneys. A more prudent course of action would be to close the Public Defender’s Office now. Among the benefits would be the saving more than half million dollars annually for the county.
The current activities of the Public Defender’s Office should simply be consolidated with the Superior Court appointed attorneys instead of being directed to county office. Enjoining these like county and court activities won’t necessarily make the public defense representation any better. However, it certainly won’t be worst.
It is hoped that a consolidation would be an opportunity for both the county and the court to an open discussion this less than perfect impartial process of public defense. This could begin by agreeing to a more transparent activity for both the Board of Supervisors and the public.