San Francisco Chronicle, Editorial
August 8, 2009

Add justice to the list of California’s budget victims. The Alameda County public defender’s office is telling judges that it can’t represent about 10,200 clients over the next year. Public Defender Diane Bellas doesn’t have much choice: Because of budget cuts, she’s losing 14 attorneys in September.

Public defenders, like all attorneys, have an ethical responsibility to provide adequate representation to their clients, and Bellas decided that she wouldn’t be able to do so with a skeleton staff.

So Bellas’ office will be turning away about 600 misdemeanor defendants and 350 probation-violation defendants each month. Fortunately for these clients, they still have their constitutional rights: They will be defended, at public cost, by private lawyers. But their defense will probably wind up costing the county more. Private attorneys charge hourly rates; studies have shown that it is nearly always more cost-effective to use public defenders.

San Francisco’s public defender, Jeff Adachi, has made this struggle his cause in recent years. Facing big budget cuts, he’s fought tooth and nail to keep his attorneys – and angered City Hall in the process. This week, he received clearance from a judge to withdraw from 75 percent of his cases at the Community Justice Center, one of Mayor Gavin Newsom’s favorite projects. Adachi, who is elected, says he can speak up where other public defenders, who are usually appointed, cannot.

“This is a pattern we’re seeing in public defender’s offices around the country,” he said. “It’s becoming more common, and in every case it’s going to cost the county more.” Adachi added that while all the public defender’s offices are struggling, he knew of only four counties in California that had “severely” cut them: Shasta, Fresno, San Francisco and Alameda.

Alameda County is in a far worse budget situation than San Francisco, so the cut is not surprising, even if the result is unsatisfying for both defendants and taxpayers in the long run.

This article appeared on page A – 7 of the San Francisco Chronicle


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