A couple of years ago, it was common to hear of Santa Clara County indigent community members tell us they plead guilty to a misdemeanor at arraignment. Since the Public Defender’s office didn’t staff all arraignment courts, many took a plea without consulting an attorney. Many would pay the consequences of their uninformed decision after the fact in terms of jobs, housing, and immigration. We still remember going to meet with Jeff Adachi in San Francisco, and being stunned at the differences of services offered for public defender clients who faced misdemeanor charges. The main difference being ofcourse that in San Francisco people could consult with an attorney at arraignment, and in Santa Clara County, they were denied that right. De-Bug’s ACJP and other members of the Coalition for Justice and Accountability met with the Public Defender’s office about this discrepancy in 2010. Very excited to see now that the Santa Clara Public Defender’s Office will staff all arraignments!
By Tracey Kaplan for the Mercury News: Ending an era in which criminal defendants’ constitutional rights were routinely jeopardized, Santa Clara County will now offer legal representation to anyone who can’t afford an attorney at their initial court appearance.
The reform, which begins next week, brings the local judicial system in line with the majority of other California counties — including San Mateo and San Francisco — that have long staffed misdemeanor arraignments, a defendant’s first court appearance. A 2009 Mercury News investigation prompted the county to provide representation for defendants in custody. Now that right will apply to all defendants accused of misdemeanors.
The policy change is significant, especially to thousands of poor defendants. In the absence of legal advice, many cases in Santa Clara County have been resolved by defendants accepting a judge’s on-the-spot deal and pleading guilty — often without understanding the sometimes dire consequences. Many legal experts consider that a potential violation of the defendant’s constitutional right to be represented by counsel at every stage of the proceedings. Some defendants simply plead guilty just to get the case over with.
“This evens out the scales of justice,” said Public Defender Mary Greenwood, who has been uncomfortable with the lack of representation since she joined the office in 1982. She lobbied the supervisors to approve the shift. “Misdemeanors used to be no-harm, no-foul, but not anymore.”
These days, the consequences of pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge can be serious, Greenwood said. Even misdemeanor drug charges can result in deportation. Misdemeanor sex convictions can carry lifetime registration. Guilty pleas also may jeopardize defendants’ jobs and housing.
Two years ago, a Mercury News investigation spurred the county to approve funds to represent defendants who were in custody at the time of their first court appearance. The board of supervisors then expanded it to one arraignment court. But it balked at the cost of a comprehensive plan to fund prosecutors as well as public defenders for all misdemeanor arraignment sessions in the county — until recently.
Now, the county has invested about $4.2 million to hire 38 new public defenders, prosecutors, investigators, paralegals and clerks to eventually handle more than 30,000 misdemeanor arraignments annually in San Jose, Morgan Hill and Palo Alto. The program will begin modestly, with a pilot project in Judge Deborah A. Ryan’s courtroom at the Hall of Justice in San Jose.
Assistant District Attorney Karyn Sinunu-Towery said she expects the misdemeanor calendar project to wind up saving the county money by increasing the court’s efficiency. At first, the arraignment sessions could take longer as public defenders and prosecutors get used to going over the cases to see whether charges should be amended or dismissed, or whether pleas can be negotiated.
But when defendants plead not guilty, their cases may often be resolved sooner, rather than drag on until they are eventually assigned to a public defender and a prosecutor. Having an attorney review thousands of citations before misdemeanor arraignment also is expected to cut incarceration costs.
“We think it’s very good for judicial economy and the taxpayers,” Sinunu-Towery said, adding that prosecutors are making other changes in the way they handle misdemeanors that could be more efficient and save money.
On the other hand, the public defender’s office expects to open 10,000 to 12,000 new cases a year — increasing its caseload by at least 30 percent. How costly that turns out to be depends in part on how quickly the cases are resolved.
Greenwood and District Attorney Jeff Rosen will report quarterly to the county’s Public Safety Committee about the program, including any cost savings.