Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday appointed Kathleen Pozzi to lead the Public Defender's Office, promoting her from interim department head more than a year after the retirement of her predecessor.
Pozzi, the longest-serving attorney in an office responsible for indigent defense, had been in charge since the March 2012 departure of John Abrahams.
She is the first woman to hold the position.
"I'm honored," Pozzi said. "I look forward to working with my criminal justice partners and continuing to serve people in need."
Her appointment was lauded by fellow lawyers and judges who commended her record as a trial attorney and her leadership of the 50-employee department with a budget of nearly $10 million.
Each year, the office handles 2,000 new felony cases and about 12,000 misdemeanors.
Judge Elliot Daum, a former Sonoma County deputy public defender who worked alongside Pozzi for 14 years, said she brings unrivaled institutional knowledge and a commitment to teaching younger attorneys. She is an instructor at her alma mater, Empire College School of Law in Santa Rosa.
"She is a phenomenal teacher and a great professor of criminal law," said Daum, who also teaches classes at Empire. "That knowledge just enhances her status as public defender. She really knows the law."
District Attorney Jill Ravitch said Pozzi understands the complexities of the criminal justice system and has proven herself as an acting department head. She said she first encountered Pozzi as a courtroom adversary more than 20 years ago and continues to hold her in high regard.
"We agree to disagree on many levels but she does it with great professionalism and a keen sense of ethics," Ravitch said. "I respect that."
Pozzi, 52, is a Sonoma County native. She was raised on her grandparents' Bloomfield dairy ranch and graduated from Piner High School.
She went to University of San Francisco and Empire law school before becoming a law clerk under then- Public Defender Marteen Miller in 1986. She was hired full-time in 1988.
She said she was inspired to become a defense lawyer by watching television re-runs of Perry Mason. "I loved the idea that someone came running into the courtroom at the end and broke open case and an innocent man went free," Pozzi said. "I thought, that is exactly what I want to do."
Pozzi spent years in the courtroom, defending clients such as Rena Corban, a Healdsburg mother convicted of leaving her 2-year-old son in a sweltering van where he died. She also helped narrow the state's three strikes law in a 1996 case that gave judges discretion to disregard prior convictions.
Pozzi was promoted to chief deputy then and was named assistant public defender in 2006.
Since becoming acting department head she's focused on fallout from previous budget cuts, a consultant's report that recommended changes to departmental procedures and the statewide shift of thousands of prisoners to county control.
"She's been very good at saving the county money and running her department," Presiding Judge Rene Chouteau said.
Pozzi was selected in a national recruitment that drew applicants from many other California counties. She was the top choice in a field of eight finalists.
Her annual salary will be $159,000 to $193,000 a year, a county spokesman said.