The Santa Cruz County administrative building on Ocean Street.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz County moves forward with creation of in-house public defender’s office by summer 2022

The county Board of Supervisors also signed off on adding a full-time public defender job to be funded in the next fiscal year, which runs July 1, 2021, through June 30, 2022. That means a lead public defender should be in place by fall to begin laying the groundwork for the in-house office.

Santa Cruz County plans to have a revamped public defender’s office up and running by summer 2022 as the county’s years-long effort to move that court-related service in-house continues to take shape.

Since the mid-1970s the county has contracted out its public criminal-defense services to a private law firm. But county officials — in line with what other counties across the state have done — have been working the last few years to create a county-led office.

Public defenders, both in California and across the country, represent people accused of crimes who cannot afford criminal defense attorneys. As part of the reshuffling, the county also plans to grow the office’s size, aiming to add a handful of attorneys to reduce the caseload for each public defender.

County supervisors on Tuesday took the next step forward in the in-house process, unanimously approving a plan to transition indigent defense services to a county public defender’s office by July 1, 2022. They also signed off on adding a full-time public defender position to be funded in the next fiscal year, which runs July 1, 2021, through June 30, 2022. That means a lead public defender should be in place by fall.

“I think all of our partners agree that moving forward with the public model is in the best interest of our indigent clients, and for the longterm health and sustainability of the indigent defense system,” Assistant County Administrative Officer Nicole Coburn told supervisors during a presentation.

County staff plan to start recruiting efforts for a new public defender as soon as next month. The annual base salary for the position will range from about $216,000 on the low end to about $290,000 on the high end. The board will have final say on whom to hire, but an advisory panel is expected to aid in the hiring process.

Though the county hopes to have its new public defender start Oct. 1, the person would not directly handle any cases prior to July 1, 2022, but instead focus on building and strengthening relationships within the local criminal justice system.

In the meantime, the main law firm the county has outsourced the services to since 1975 — Biggam, Christensen & Minsloff (BCM) — and a pair of firms that step in when there is a conflict for BCM, will all continue to work for the county under contracts that extend through the next fiscal year. That means BCM will continue to provide indigent defense services through June 30, 2022.

Supervisors emphasized Tuesday that the shift to an in-house public defender’s office is no indictment of the work the private firms have done.

“This is no indication that we are unhappy with the offices of Biggam and Christensen who have been providing nothing short of outstanding service in their public defender’s office for us,” Chairperson Bruce McPherson said. “This is just a time for the public defender’s office to become included in the county envelope.”

County officials have been working with BCM staff during the transition process and will try to bring them on board, including by giving them the right of first opportunity within the new public defender’s office.

The county’s journey to bring the public defender’s office in-house began about five years ago. County officials began talking about the current contract model in 2016 when contracts with the private firms were coming to an end, Coburn said after the meeting.

“And so we started having conversations with them about, you know, just succession planning and what we might want to do going forward,” she said. “We knew that they weren’t going to be able to continue for perpetuity.”

Sticking with the contract model would mean the county would have to frequently go out to bid. “And there’s no assurance that we would find a firm locally or within the area that would be able to provide us what we would need,” Coburn said.

Santa Cruz County is not alone in making the shift from contracting out public defense services to moving them to a designated county department. In the Bay Area, the only other county left outsourcing its services is San Mateo County, Coburn said.

County officials expect to accommodate the new public defender’s office within the existing $13 million budget in terms of ongoing operating costs, though one-time expenses to establish the new department will be necessary. The county will also look to bolster the new office with state funding that can help with training needs, among other things, Coburn said.

Under the current model, between the main law firm and the conflict firms, about 35 attorneys work on public defense services for the county, according to Coburn. The goal is to increase that number to about 40 attorneys. The new office will initially have about 40-45 positions, a mix of attorneys and support staff, Coburn said.

The aim is to cut down on the number of cases each public defender has to shoulder. “Ideally it’s to be able to provide adequate time to working each case to which an attorney is assigned,” Coburn said.