The civil grand jury believes San Mateo County’s Private Defender Program should be evaluated more thoroughly and frequently, and the official in charge of the program said he welcomes the scrutiny.
San Mateo is the only county in California with a population of more than 500,000 that lacks a public defender’s office. Instead, it contracts with private attorneys to provide indigent defense. The San Mateo County Bar Association coordinates the program, and the lawyers involved are independent contractors.
The program was last reviewed in 2012, according to a recent report by the grand jury, and almost a decade had elapsed since the previous evaluation in 2003.
The grand jury recommended evaluating the contract every five years, soliciting public comment during the process, and extensively surveying former defendants who have received services under the program.
The San Francisco Examiner contacted Seth Morris, a deputy public defender in Alameda County, to learn some of the benefits associated with county-run public defender’s offices. In addition to social workers and immigration attorneys, Morris said public defenders often provide assistance with post-conviction relief, such as the Clean Slate Program, which allows some offenders to have misdemeanors expunged from their records.
Along similar lines, Morris said his office also helps residents petition to have certain prior felony convictions reduced to misdemeanors under California’s recently passed Proposition 47. Chief Defender John Digiacinto, who heads San Mateo County’s Private Defender Program, said his organization provides many of the same services and does extensive outreach to let residents know they might qualify for the type of post-conviction relief offered by Prop. 47 and the Clean Slate Program.
Digiacinto said he understands the grand jury’s call for more frequent evaluations, and noted that he helped craft the standards to which the grand jury said his organization should be held.
Some activists have claimed black and Latino defendants might not receive adequate representation from the program and are more likely to be encouraged to accept plea deals. Digiacinto vehemently denied those accusations, calling them “deeply offensive.”
County Supervisor Dave Pine was on the team that evaluated the program in 2012, and said he found no evidence of racial bias in how the organization handled its cases.
Pine recommended that the Private Defender Program survey its clients in 2012. The supervisor said 243 surveys were mailed to clients in fiscal year 2013-14. Twenty of the recipients chose to return the surveys, Pine said, and only one respondent gave negative feedback.
Eighty clients also complained directly to the county about their representation during that period, Pine noted, adding that because the program serves about 20,000 defendants per year, the percentage of dissatisfied clients seemed relatively low.
Despite the 2012 review’s generally favorable findings, Pine said he agrees that the reviews should be done more often. He added that more clients should be surveyed, and county employees should proactively collect the surveys to ensure greater participation.
The county’s current contract with the bar association expires June 30, 2017, and Pine said he would like to see another review completed before the contract is extended.
Digiacinto noted that he already provides comprehensive written reports on his organization’s operations every year, and he said additional scrutiny is appropriate because private defenders play such a crucial role in the criminal justice system.
“We are representing the most vulnerable people on the planet,” Digiacinto said.