Gideon Alert: Yolo County, California budget woes threaten criminal justice system

BY David Carroll on Wednesday, April 7, 2010 at 11:32 AM

Any discussion of state obligation to fund and administer indigent defense would be remiss without a discussion of California.  California requires counties to fund all trial-level and most appellate indigent defense services.  However, unlike a state like Michigan, per capita spending for indigent defense services by California counties is significant. Whereas Michigan ranks 44th of the fifty states in per capita indigent defense spending, California ranks in the top 10.  However, that spending is tilted toward those counties with more local resources. This leaves the disparity between the good and dysfunctional systems to be the greatest in the country.

For example, this morning’s Daily Democrat details the impact of the current financial crisis on the criminal justice system in Yolo County (Davis).  The County Prosecutor there used “greater scrutiny in choosing which cases to take to court” and “aggressively utilizing diversion programs,” to significantly reduce the criminal court backlog he inherited but current cutbacks could make that backlog return.  I can attest to the difficulties and backlogs referred to as I had the opportunity under prior public defender administration to look at the right to counsel system in Yolo County about ten years ago.

Unlike many underfunded systems, I found that the attorneys in the office were very committed even while toiling under heavy caseloads.  I believe much of that is due to the support and training put on by the California Public Defender Association (CPDA).  Unlike Michigan, California has a very active and cohesive public defender association that fills in many of the voids created by the lack of state oversight, including training, public education and serving as the voice of indigent clients at the statehouse on criminal matters.

In looking to improve the situation in Yolo County – and more importantly on the dozens of rural California counties who rely exclusively on low-bid, flat fee contracting – the important issue is how to implement reforms that will not decrease the quality of representation in the counties that have more readily met Gideon’s promise.  In places like Georgia and Michigan where counties were not and are not for the most part adequately meeting the state’s Sixth Amendment obligation, the move to state funding and administration does not present these problems.  However, the indigent defense community needs to think clearly about these issues in looking to correct other state systemic deficiencies in places like Washington and Pennsylvania where Seattle and Philadelphia have systems that could be harmed in the move to state oversight.