Attorneys

Eyes on public defender workplace

In the wake of a 2020 civil grand jury report recommending significant oversight and improvement to the county’s Private Defender Program, both the county and the organization are committed to changes and improving services.

“I think this is really a golden opportunity for us to take the feedback, take a serious look at what we can do better and ask for the contract and money to do it. We have no lack of motivation to do all the things that can be done. The current structure of the program does have limits, but we are hoping to expand those,” said Lisa Maguire, the chief defender of the Private Defender Program.

Established in 1968, the Private Defender Program, or PDP, provides indigent defense representation to all people facing charges from the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office. The report evaluated if recommendations from a 2015 civil grand jury report around improvements occurred in finances, operations, county oversight and legal representation. The 2020 report recommended increased county oversight on finances, improvements to PDP services and an independent review to evaluate the program and estimate costs to improve the PDP model.

San Mateo County contracts with the San Mateo County Bar Association, or SMCBA, to provide attorneys to defendants through the PDP program, which has a staff of 15 full-time employees, led by Maguire, who oversees operations and reports to the SMCBA board. Staff assigns cases to around 100 attorneys who are independent contractors.

San Mateo remains the only county in California with a population over 500,000 that does not have a county public defender’s office and instead contracts with an organization. Maguire doesn’t believe one model is better than the other and that both are effective for providing quality defense. She said the county’s model provides defense lawyers with more flexibility and control over their practices and convinces more lawyers to stay. Maguire predicted if San Mateo County moved to a county public defender office, it would likely reduce the number of lawyers available to DA’s Office levels but keep a similar workload.

“I do think that’s the model that will continue. I think that’s for good reason. It makes a lot of sense. It’s working, and there’s no reason it can’t continue to work and even improve,” Maguire said.

San Mateo County Manager Mike Callagy agreed, saying there was no evidence that any other program would do better than the PDP, and he believes there is good leadership in place. He did not express any interest in changing models, saying the current one is viable and works for the county and provides flexibility and freedom for attorneys.

Callagy said the county is currently evaluating a firm to lead an independent audit to evaluate the PDP program for potential changes. The county was slated to make a decision Friday if the firm is qualified. If picked, the county will negotiate a contract, leading to a much quicker timeline and process instead of reapplying for bids. Callagy said the firm specializes in reviews of defense program performance. No timetable or deadline is required for either side to finish the review. He expects any needed changes suggested to be in the new PDP contract later this summer to ensure a vigorous and balanced defense program.

“We are going to take a very hard look at any suggestions that they offer,” Callagy said.

Maguire said her program takes the grand jury criticisms seriously and is addressing issues around finances, resources and services, but didn’t agree with all of the report findings.

“There are certainly several areas of the report that I feel like don’t give an accurate picture in terms of the comparison between the work we do and the work the DA’s Office does,” Maguire said.

She said the criticism about a lack of oversight was misinterpreted, as the PDP does provide oversight monitoring for quality control but doesn’t interfere in the case.

“We don’t micromanage, and we don’t interfere. The clients are given a competent, dedicated criminal defense attorney who is doing criminal defense,” Maguire said.

Maguire and San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said the differences between the DA’s Office budget and the PDP budget were like comparing apples to oranges. Both said it was due to the retirement benefits of numerous employees that the PDP does not have. According to the grand jury report, the DA’s Office budget is $45.2 million, and the PDP budget is $19.6 million, which was found to be concerning.

Wagstaffe said a significant portion of the budget is for salaries and benefits and is not used directly for court cases or proceedings. He cited that the PDP uses independent contractors and doesn’t pay salaries to support employees. The DA’s Office also has programs and expenses beyond just prosecution, like providing crime victims services. He did not believe the funding imbalance affects the legal process.

Maguire agreed, adding, “our money more directly goes to the service of our clients, while a lot of their money goes into running a big governmental agency.”

She said that there is a lot of change in communities, and public expectations for defense lawyers are higher than 15 years ago. People now expect lawyer services and knowledge around client background through mitigation reports, mental health diversion options and resentencing options for clients.

“We are definitely providing a lot more of those types of services, which are becoming more and more recognized as important in understanding big pictures instead of moving people through the system as just a case,” Maguire said.

To address problems, the PDP is hiring another staff attorney to help with tailored training and oversight for attorneys and is adding a social worker position to help bridge gaps in the system, help educate lawyers and reach out to community-based organizations. It hopes to expand services and contract terms to get earlier and longer representation for clients. Maguire said the county manager’s office was encouraged to learn of the staff additions. She hopes a contract extension would include more options and funding to add services.

The biggest benefit from expanding its services and budget would be representing clients at an earlier stage before the court arraignment when a defendant is advised of the charges against them and asked to enter a plea. It would allow the PDP to advise clients lost in the process and need legal help before arraignment.

“I think that the best thing that could come out of this is the ability to just expand the representation we can give them,” Maguire said.

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