Lassen County Public Defender’s Office
Grand Jury Report 2010 - 2011
Reason for Inquiry: Public Interest
Inquiry Procedures: The Grand Jury interviewed the Public Defender, members of his staff, other entities who interface with the Public Defender on a professional or supervisory basis as well as multiple unannounced visits to Public Defender's Office.
Background: The Lassen County Public Defender’s Office is charged 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 defense.
The Lassen County Public Defender's Office is staffed by Public Defender, two staff lawyers, an administrative assistant, support staff. All are full time employees of Lassen County. The Public Defender is a County department head who reports directly to the Lassen County Board of Supervisors. The Lassen County Public Office handles an average of about 1,100 cases per year, 40% felony and 60% misdemeanor. This represents a significant caseload, given the meager staff at the Public Defender's Office.
Findings: The Public Defender's Office essentially has three lawyers authorized to appear in court in defense of individuals that have no other means obtaining legal representation. Through observation, unannounced visits and interviews, the two staff lawyers appear to be decisively engaged while Public Defender himself appears to only spend an estimated 30-40 percent of the day at work. It appears that the Public Defender is not actively engaged in the caseload other than for felony preliminary hearings.
Continuing Education (CE) is essential for the lawyers of the Public Defender’s Office. In fact, effective representation of their clients is not possible when legal team is not current with changing laws. Through this inquiry it was determined that the funds allocated for these mandated requirements are not equally allocated.
The Public Defender avails himself of the necessary funding for CE but his staff is required to pay out of their pocket or not attend. The heavy workload of the staff lawyers also creates scheduling conflicts between caseloads and continuing education. It appears that because of the unequal distribution of the workload and the incomplete continuing education of staff lawyers, people of Lassen County are not adequately served.
During difficult economic times, funds allocated to this department for leadership and supervision should be spent wisely to best serve the people and to ensure maximum effectiveness.The Public Defender reports directly to and is overseen by the Lassen County Board of Supervisors. Given the professional nature of the Public Defender’s Office, it is imperative that the Board of Supervisors hire an individual who understands the professional requirements and is self-motivated to meet the requirements of the office.
Recommendation: The Lassen County Board of Supervisors revise the Public Defender's job description to include the requirement of active participation in caseloads assigned to the office. The Lassen County Board of Supervisors consider alternative methods to oversee and evaluate the Public Defender's contribution to the to the effectiveness of his department. The Lassen County Board of Supervisors review the effective use of continuing education funds in the Public Defender’s Office, and ensure minimum continuing education requirements are met by all employees. The Public Defender reevaluates the office caseload to ensure that all the lawyers assigned to the office, carry an equitable portion of the workload.