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County Supervisors Make Public Defender Office a Public Body

Supervisors will appoint a chief public defender to oversee public defender attorneys

The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a plan to move the county’s public defender services from a private law firm to one run by the county.

The plan has garnered support from the current public defenders, as well as law enforcement and other justice partners, since it was introduced to the public last month.

The county’s contract with Biggam, Christensen and Minslof (BCM)—which has provided indigent criminal defense for 45 years—is set to expire in 2022. Contracts for two other law firms also appointed to provide indigent criminal defense—Page, Salisbury & Dudley, and Wallraff & Associates—expire at the same time.

Under the plan, the supervisors will appoint a chief public defender to oversee public defender attorneys, all of whom would be county employees. The county would hire private attorneys to handle conflicts, criminal appeals and post-conviction issues.

County officials say that creating the public office will cut costs, and allow the county to hire 15% more attorneys. They also say that it would give public defenders access to agencies that can help clients, such as the Health Services Agency, Human Services Department and Probation Department.

When the plan was introduced on Oct. 6, however, Public Defender Larry Biggam expressed concern that the county did not include his office in talks about the transition. Two Santa Cruz County Superior Court judges also said they were not included.

He was also worried about whether his current team of 26 attorneys would be hired. That is a key piece of the puzzle, Biggam said, because each attorney handles about 100 clients at a time. 

The supervisors then tabled the item until those discussions occurred. 

Since then, county officials have held four meetings with the Superior Court, as well as the BCM, Page and Wallraff firms, interim county Administrative Officer Nicole Coburn said.

“We feel like we’ve had really productive conversations so far,” Coburn said. “We’ve been able to hear their concerns and I feel that we have ways to address them and come up with a consensus.”

The county budgets a total of $13 million for public defender services, which is doled out in monthly installments, Coburn said.

BCM is currently invoicing $631,753.16 per month for a total of just over $7.5 million. It also receives about $222,800 annually to run the Clean Slate Program.

In a statement to the board, Biggam warned that making the transition during the Covid-19 pandemic could be tumultuous, and asked that the decision be delayed at least one year.

Most jury trials have been delayed, he said, and added that the court’s recent decision to slowly resume them by holding one per week “won’t cut it.”

“The courts are dealing with an avalanche of unresolved cases that keeps building every day, and there is no exit ramp through jury trials,” he said. “There is a lot of chaos in the system, and a lot of moving parts, and a lot of clients are getting lost in the shuffle. If you start changing lawyers in this context, I’m afraid the clients are going to be lost.”

A detailed transition plan, which will include a way to hire the current public defense attorneys, will be brought before the board by February.

In other action, the supervisors heard the first reading of the county’s draft three-year roadmap to address homelessness, which has the ambitious goal of reducing ‘unsheltered residents’ by 50%, and all homelessness by 30%.

The plan, titled, “Housing for a Healthy Santa Cruz: A Strategic Framework for Addressing Homelessness in Santa Cruz County,” was guided in part by Focus Strategies, a Walnut, Calif.-based organization that focuses on ending homelessness by studying data.

“The county and our partners are working on an integrated approach to addressing homelessness that leverages existing strengths while addressing gaps,” Assistant County Administrative Officer Elissa Benson stated in a press release. “Over the next three years, if our community meets the specific objectives set forth in this plan, we should see significant improvements in the lives of our homeless residents and reduced homelessness throughout the county.” 

The plan includes adding 160 year-round emergency shelter beds, 350 new “rapid rehousing” slots and 100 new permanent housing “slots” with supportive services for homeless adults, county spokesman Jason Hoppin said. 

In the coming weeks, the county will make several public presentations about the roadmap and will seek input from homeless residents. 

The plan will come back to the board for final adoption in February.

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