Defender contract OK’d

It seemed at first like a no-brainer, but it still took the Butte County Board of Supervisors four months to make a decision regarding which group of lawyers should be handed the contract for representing indigent defendants in criminal court.

Responding to a chorus of praise from local law enforcement officials, legal professionals and a non-partisan consultant, the board voted unanimously at its regular Tuesday meeting to re-award the indigent-defense contract to the current contractor, a consortium of local attorneys.

The consortium, headed by attorney Denny Forland, has been providing that service to the county for 14 years now. In March, a county-commissioned report lauded the consortium for its efficiency and cost-effectiveness. But for the first time an outside group also expressed interest in the contract.

That group, Barker and Associates, operates public defenders’ offices in eight California counties. A representative from the group had contacted Paradise Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi sometime earlier in the year, offering to undercut the current consortium’s cost by about $500,000 a year.

But many involved in Butte County criminal justice were worried that Barker’s group might not provide as good representation as had the consortium. While the group has been given favorable marks by some of the counties it operates in, it also has developed a reputation for hiring younger, relatively inexperienced lawyers. The group was able to underbid the consortium by reducing the number of public defenders it would use to 10, rather than the present 13.5. Critics charged that such a move might lower defense standards, opening the door for convictions to be tossed out over misrepresentation.

Robert Thomas, an assistant district attorney who spoke to the board in favor the consortium, said the caseload for public defenders was already too high, and that it would be a “travesty” if the board decided to go with Barker’s firm. He called the current defenders “some of the best attorneys I have seen in my life.”

Even after all the praise, the decision still came down to economics. With the county strapped for cash, the consortium lowered its bid by about $611,000 over the term of the three-year contract. County staffers also calculated that, while Barker and Associates’ service looked like it would cost less on paper, "transitional costs" would add about $160,000 to the actual price tag.