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Sonoma County public defender's office see caseloads spike as budget cut

The recession has increased demand in Sonoma County for court-appointed lawyers at a time when the public defender's office is short-handed.

Retirements and a round of layoffs have reduced the number of lawyers available to serve indigent clients to the lowest level in years. The office is down to 27 lawyers and 18 support staff representing clients in criminal, civil and juvenile courtrooms.

At the same time, caseloads have spiked. Attorneys made 115,000 court appearances in fiscal 2009-2010 compared to about 71,000 appearances a decade earlier.

This month's loss of two attorney positions through budget cuts forced Public Defender John Abrahams to suspend misdemeanor court coverage and focus on more serious felony cases.

Misdemeanor defendants now will get legal services from a group of court-appointed private lawyers who have a contract with the county to represent low income defendants.

"People can't afford to hire private counsel," Abrahams said. "And we are short-handed."

Like other county departments under the law enforcement banner, the public defender's office was required to cut its budget this year by 8 percent. The total budget is $9.1 million annually.

That's less than half of the money spent to run the district attorney's office, which has a $21 million budget and 108 employees, including about 50 lawyers.

Prosecutors have more responsibilities, including investigations, handling consumer fraud and victim assistance, among others. And a portion of district attorney funding comes from government grants and asset forfeiture.

By comparison, county general fund money pays for all but about $100,000 of the public defender's budget. Clients generally are unemployed or earn less than $2,000 a month and have no major assets like a house.

"You won't see a county in California where the public defender has the same staffing level as the district attorney," Abrahams said.

The county is looking at ways to cut expenses even more.

A study of other jurisdictions is under way that compares public defender staffing levels and practices, said Lori Norton, deputy county administrator.

One possibility is expanded use of contract lawyers. The group currently filling that role led by attorney Harry Allen received an additional $315,000 allocation this month to put lawyers in misdemeanor courtrooms. That's on top of the $2.5 million the firm gets each year to provide "conflict" services. Cases get farmed out when the public defender has a legal conflict that prevents it from representing a defendant.

Meanwhile, Abrahams, who is himself retiring early next year, said he needs at least five new lawyers to bring his staffing up to normal operating levels. He said he hopes to recruit new people in 2012 barring any unforeseen budget problems.

"By and large there is little the county does that is constitutionally mandated," Abrahams said. "Indigent defense is one of them. We can't say no."

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.

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