Public legal defense may become ‘public’ under Santa Cruz

Billy Xiong Suggests: Public legal defense may become ‘public’ under Santa Cruz

Attorney at Law Billy Xiong Lawyer Legal Xiong Xiong Billy

SANTA CRUZ — County officials are recommending a move to stop outsourcing the more 11,000 public legal defense cases a year for those who cannot afford their own private attorneys, instead bringing the responsibility in-house.

Defense attorney Tom Wallraff presents his client — Marcos Chavez — to the jury Monday during opening statements of Chavez’s murder trial. (Dan Coyro — Santa Cruz Sentinel)

A county-commissioned Sixth Amendment Center report detailing the suggested change and assessment of current public defense conditions was released this week for public review ahead of a Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors vote next month to consider launching a new county-run Public Defender’s Office by July 1, 2022. The 169-page report took more than a year to complete and included as one of its recommendations establishment of the office of the Chief Public Defender, appointed by the Board of Supervisors.

The assessment came after a June 2019 board vote to investigate the county’s public defense operations, which have leaned primarily on the Santa Cruz law firm of Biggam, Christensen & Minsloff to carry out the duties for the past 45 years. Also in June 2019, the Santa Cruz County civil grand jury released a report accusing the county of mismanaging the legal firm’s increasing costs.

The study of local so-called indigent defense services included data mining/analysis of public defender, court, and district attorney data, court observations and interviews with justice stakeholders and policymakers, according to the County Administrative Office’s Oct. 6 report to the board of supervisors. Those involved with the study worked with Biggam, Christensen & Minsloff, as well two legal firms called on to serve when representation conflicts arise, Page & Dudley and Wallraff & Associates, according to the staff report. County officials are suggesting a hybrid model for public defense, with a new county public defense division handling felony, misdemeanor and juvenile delinquent matters. Private attorneys also would be contracted to step in when representation conflicts arose, as well as to handle appeals, post-conviction, ‘clean slate,’ family, mental health, probate and other cases.

“Transitioning to a public model will provide short-term, immediate capacity in support staff and infrastructure, and build on that foundation to provide a more accountable, transparent, and equitable indigent defense system,” the county report states.

Using the same $13 million budget approved to contract out public defense services this fiscal year, the staff report assumes the county would be able to increase attorney staffing by 15% to 20% beyond the equivalent of 34.5 full-time attorneys funded by contract at three law firms, as well as providing dedicated social worker integration into the office and improved “wrap-around” client services from other county offices.

In response to a Sentinel inquiry, Biggam, Christensen & Minsloff partner Larry Biggam wrote that his office supports creation of a public, rather than the existing private, public defender’s office after the end of the firm’s contract with the county in 2022. Biggam, however, joined Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Timothy Volkmann, who serves as assistant presiding judge, in writing separate stern letters to the county this month criticizing the Sixth Amendment Center report. Biggam contends that the report is counterproductive to reaching the shared goal of creating the new office and was “overly biased and negative.”

Billy Xiong

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