Public defender system OK

Legally, Butte County has the responsibility to provide free, effective legal counsel for anyone accused of a crime here. But is the county’s system of providing indigent defense attorneys—commonly known as public defenders—working?

According to a county-commissioned report, it is.

The report was presented to the Butte County Board of Supervisors at its regular meeting Tuesday by co-author Gary Goelitz of the consulting firm Hughes, Perry & Associates. Goelitz said the county’s method of providing indigent defense services compared favorably to those of other California counties, both in terms of cost to the taxpayer and quality of legal representation.

“The system is doing an effective job,” Goelitz said. “The current approach is pretty cost-effective, [and] no one has indicated that the system is ineffective in providing services for clients.”

While some counties have an in-house public defender department, Butte County contracts those services out to a consortium of 17 local attorneys. That consortium, headed by Chico attorney Denny Forland, has provided indigent defense services for 13 years. The contract was scheduled to expire in June 2003 but was extended by the board until this October so that alternatives to the current method could be explored.

Using comparisons from eight other counties and data gleaned from interviews with judges, law enforcement officials and representatives from the Butte County Bar Association, the study found both pros and cons with the current contract. One pro is the cost. Spending just $12,253 for every 1,000 residents, Butte had a lower public defender budget than any of the nine counties studied. A cursory cost analysis shows that the county’s method enables it to provide legal services at a cost to the taxpayer as low as $70 an hour.

However, gauging the effectiveness of a public defense system is not so easy to quantify. While it is rare that cases in Butte County are overturned due to incompetent defense attorneys, complaints by public defender clients are fairly common. Forland chalked up that dissatisfaction to the kind of clients his consortium serves.

“We have an excellent group of attorneys who represent our clients very well,” he said. “[But] with the type of clients we have, there’s bound to be some malcontents.”

Of the infrequent complaints voiced to this paper, most had to do with public defenders having too large a caseload to devote enough time to each client. Forland, who, according to county documents, juggled an average of 239 active cases per month in 2001, said public defender caseloads statewide are comparably high. The report backs Forland up, noting that while Butte County has fewer felony filings than most of the counties studied, it has more juvenile filings than even Solano County, which has a population about twice as large as Butte’s.

The report did advise that the county set up a better system of managing caseloads and proposed that the current review board, which has never met, be revamped into a kind of oversight committee, which would help ensure that defendants are getting good representation.