Point Adachi: Controller’s Audit Bolsters Claim That Farming Out Cases to Private Attorneys Would Cost City More

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by Joe Eskenazi
SF Weekly, The Snitch
June 24, 2009

Some of you may remember the very public tête-à-tête between Public Defender Jeff Adachi and Supervisor Sean Elsbernd earlier this year. Sparked by Adachi’s request to hire more paralegals, Elsbernd said the public defender was “horrible” at keeping a budget, while Adachi replied that Elsbernd “has no idea what he’s doing.” The spat kicked off Adachi’s ongoing feud with the mayor over budget cuts and resulted in Elsbernd siccing the city controller on Adachi’s office to hunt for wasteful spending.

Controller Ben Rosenfield released his audit yesterday, and it was tossed onto the desks of city officials this morning. And if Elsbernd was hoping to embarrass the public defender — that didn’t happen. It could be argued that Rosenfield’s report bolsters Adachi’s much (much, much) repeated claim that cuts to his budget will result in cost overruns in the near future, as cases would have to be farmed out to private attorneys who earn more, work shorter hours, and insist on drawing overtime pay. (that’s certainly the argument Adachi wasted no time in making via a press release — but never forget that the public defender is both a shrewd attorney and a politician). In summary, here’s what the audit found:

Skipping right to the money shot, the controller found that private attorneys — who earn a higher hourly wage than public defenders, work sane hours, and wouldn’t be copacetic with the 10 to 30 hours of unpaid overtime PDs log every week — took an average of 395 days to handle a felony case between 2005 and 2009. Public defenders, meanwhile, averaged 219 days.

For misdemeanor cases, private attorneys required an average of 150 days while public defenders took 130.

Seizing upon the controller’s findings, Adachi claimed that the mayor’s plan to slice $1.9 million off his office’s budget would result in the city paying up to $1.4 million more per year as the public defender would be forced to farm out 2,600 cases to private attorneys.

There were other numbers that reflected well on Adachi’s office: Since 2003, San Francisco has upped its paralegal total from one to 14.6 “full-time equivalent” employees, altering its ratio from one paralegal to 82 attorneys to one for every 5.6. Still, the national standard is one for every 3.4.

Similarly, the caseload for felony defenders has fallen from 269 yearly in 2003 to 218 now — but the national guideline is only 150. Misdemeanor defenders’ caseload was 873 in ’03 and is a devilish 666 now. National standard: 400.

Other numbers, however, while not necessarily bad, aren’t the sort of thing Adachi would see fit to put in a press release. For one, his office’s caseload has dropped 3 percent since 2005, but his budget has gone up by 22 percent. Sifting through the numbers, this is apparently explained by a significant beefing up of Adachi’s felony attorney cadre. Two-thirds of the additional money that has gone to his office in recent years has gone to defending felony suspects; he’s jumped the number of full-time equivalent felony defenders from 45 in 2003 to 57 now; misdemeanor attorneys saw their ranks fall from 17 to about 15.7. (Because this is “full-time equivalents” you can have multiple people working part-time to make up one full-time position; hence the fractional workers).

And while the PD’s office is handling 42 percent fewer misdemeanor cases than it did a decade ago (14,469 in 2000; 8,460 now) the number of felony cases has jumped in that time period (10,990 to 12,932 — that’s 18 percent).

Judges (and District Attorneys) have long whined that Adachi is loath to take pleas and aggressively sends his lawyers into court battles — so it’s not entirely clear if Adachi’s budget and staffing augmentations are a result of more cases, or if it’s the other way round.

One thing is for certain, though: Anyone hoping Adachi would be shamed — or silenced — by this audit bet on the wrong horse. The board of supervisors will weigh in on whether to restore the cuts to Adachi’s office later this week. That audit was pretty well-timed, don’ t you think?