Public defender costs come under scrutiny 

The increasing costs of the court providing legal defense for those who cannot afford it is coming under scrutiny heading into budget deliberations.

San Francisco Superior Court’s legal-defense tab for those who cannot afford their own attorney has increased by more than 40 percent in five years for a total of $10.6 million. The burgeoning cost is not going unnoticed by city officials, who are facing another year of having to close an enormous budget deficit.

The Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee on Wednesday approved the release of $406,665, which was on reserve.

“The latest expenditures justify that they need this entire $10-plus million account,” said Budget Analyst Harvey Rose.

In fiscal year 2005-06, the court’s indigent defense totaled $7.4 million for 6,868 cases handled. That comes out to be an average cost of $1,085 per case. This fiscal year, those costs have increased 43.2 percent for a total of $10,668,169. The court handled 9,284 cases, at an average cost of $1,149 per case, according to Rose’s report.

“The specifics behind this request is basically the increase caseload of 31 percent compared to last year and more cases going to trial, as well as appointments that are increasing as well,” court Chief Financial Officer Michael Yuen said. “And then the other component of this request is for conflicts where the public defender cannot represent a defender based on ethical conflict.”

Supervisor John Avalos, who chairs the board’s budget committee, said, “I am fine with releasing the funds.”

But he didn’t stop there. Avalos said he wants a full accounting of the cases referred from the public defender’s office. In recent years, Public Defender Jeff Adachi has battled with Mayor Gavin Newsom and supervisors about an acceptable level of funding for his department while taking into consideration the cost for the court system’s indigent defense. The public defender will refer cases with conflicts or if they do not have enough deputy public defenders to handle more cases.

Deputy City Controller Monique Zmuda said there is no reporting requirement, but could collect the information and provide it by the time the committee discusses the public defender’s proposed budget for the fiscal year which begins July 1.

“I think that would be useful to have tracked,” Avalos said.

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