Lawyers for the Poor Dwindling Across U.S. as Local Governments Slash Spending

Lawyers for the poor, who say they already are stretched to the breaking point by huge caseloads and dwindling staff, face layoffs across the United States as local governments slash spending in hard economic times.

Nowhere is the threat to public defenders more apparent than in California, the state with the biggest population — at 38 million— and the largest deficit — $24.3 billion and counting.

There's far more at stake than cutting jobs, say prosecutors and defense lawyers alike. Eliminating attorneys for the indigent may actually cost more money than it saves.

Unlike any other public service, court-appointed counsel cannot be scaled back. According to the U.S. Constitution, every criminal defendant, rich or poor, gets one. If the defendant can't pay, the government does. And if public defenders aren't available, private attorneys must be hired, at rates costing at least twice as much and often more.

"Counties can't just say `I'm not going to pay,"' said San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who's locked in a very public fight with Mayor Gavin Newsom over a recent directive to cut the defense lawyer's budget by nearly $2 million.

Adachi said his office would be devastated and would have to fire 15 to 20 attorneys, about 20 percent of his staff.

Then, he said, "The whole system would begin to fail."

Defendants would sit in jail longer, increasing incarceration costs, Adachi said. Cases would be delayed while private attorneys get up to speed, creating bigger clogs in a legal pipeline that barely trickles now.

Adachi's current budget is nearly $24 million — "less than half what the police and sheriff's departments spend in overtime," he notes. Slashing it would mean farming out 6,000 cases to private lawyers, ranging from misdemeanors to felonies. That would cost $3 million to $4 million, Adachi estimates, or up to twice as much as the cut itself.

Sacramento County has already laid off 18 staffers, and will give pink slips to 29 attorneys if it doesn't get a fiscal break quickly. Los Angeles County Public Defender Michael Judge said he doesn't know how much will be cut from his office, which employs about 600 attorneys and is the state's largest indigent defense system.

"I don't know if I'm going to have to lay anybody off yet," he said.

California counties are particularly troubled as they head toward a July 1 budget deadline for new fiscal year. Their local revenues have tanked, thanks to huge drops in sales tax and property tax incomes caused by businesses closing and home loan foreclosures.

Then there's further recession fallout, including shrinking amounts of state funds.

San Francisco and Los Angeles have experienced layoffs before in less dire recessions. But when expensive bills started coming in from private lawyers, stunned county officials rehired public defenders, who'd been doing the same job for considerably less.

Desperate Sacramento County officials face a deficit of $140 million and say legal services for the poor may be cut by 24 percent.

The problems are far from unique to California.

Minnesota eliminated the jobs of 53 public defenders, or about 12 percent of the staff. Last summer, the office stopped representing parents involved in child welfare cases, referring them instead to counties, which hired private lawyers.

"The counties incurred a lot of costs they weren't happy about," said John Stuart, head of the state's public defender office. "It was about 9 percent of our caseload."

So far, Minnesota has avoided more attorney cuts, partly by finding unusual ways of generating revenue, including increasing the license fees of lawyers by $75.

"It's like telling the county pothole-filling crews to chip in an extra $10 to pay for the asphalt," Stuart said dryly. "But it's better than not following the Constitution."

Unlike California, where counties bear the burden of funding public defenders, Minnesota has a statewide office.

Court systems also are targeted for drastic cuts. Some courtrooms will go dark for at least one day a month to save costs, adding more weight to backlogged dockets.