State Panel Raises Concerns About Legal Representation for Indigent Defendants

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A state panel is raising concerns about the way California provides legal representation to criminal defendants who can't afford attorneys. KPCC's Frank Stoltze says the panel found the quality of representation is uneven across the state and that sometimes it falls short of the constitutional minimum.

Frank Stoltze: The panel commissioned a survey of judges across the state. Two-thirds of respondents said their counties fail to provide sufficient investigative resources for public defenders. John Van de Kamp heads the panel. The former state attorney general says it's more popular to fund district attorneys seeking to put criminal defendants behind bars than public defenders trying to keep them out.

John Van de Kamp: Public defender offices and defense services sometimes take second fiddle to D.A.'s offices. They're just not as politically popular.

Stoltze: The report from the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice is careful to say that despite heavy workloads, public defenders generally provide competent representation. But many public defenders complain they don't have adequate resources, particularly as more and more defendants are categorized as sexually violent predators under Jessica's Law. Those are complicated cases. Michael Hersek heads the California State Public Defenders office.

Michael Hersek: Almost unanimously, across the board, in every county, in every public defender office, there's a lack of resources for investigation services.

Stoltze: When judges overturn criminal convictions, they often blame inadequate representation by defense attorneys who don't have the money to hire investigators who could find evidence that might prove their clients' innocence. Hersek, who sits on the Van de Kamp panel, says there's a particular problem with counties that maintain flat fee contracts with outside attorneys to provide public defender services.

Hersek: Every penny that is used for investigation, forensics comes out of the profits of the flat fee contractor, and that conflict is very serious.

Stoltze: The panel recommends that the legislature require counties to separately reimburse investigative services in flat fee contracts. It also recommends that the state Bar Association take up the issue of properly funding defense services for indigent clients. The panel included prosecutors. Greg Totten is Ventura County's District Attorney.

Greg Totten: What we're talking about is ensuring that there is somebody on the other side of the courtroom, to make sure the prosecutor does everything right inside the courtroom. It is a system that depends on zealous advocacy.

Stoltze: Michael Judge is the public defender for Los Angeles County.

Michael Judge: The consequences of a failure are so catastrophic: somebody could get the death penalty who didn't deserve it, or perhaps wasn't even guilty.

Stoltze: Judge also worries about eroding public confidence in a criminal justice system in which rich defendants get a much better defense than poor ones.