In Monday’s article, a line regarding the prosecution of Noah William Benham read as follows: “And maybe the worst news for Noah William Benham – who maintains he won’t plead guilty to a crime he didn’t commit – is that he doesn’t have the resources, as a student, to hire his own private lawyer. He’s using the public defender’s office.”
Some have seen this line as a shot at the local public defender’s office and, while the author of the article told me that he did not intend it that way, as written it does not represent the views of the Vanguard.
Cres Vellucci told me, “It wasn’t meant to read that way, of course. I love the PD office over there compared to many I’ve seen.”
The point he was trying to make was in response to the data published by the Vanguard last week showing that the public defender’s office – even in Yolo County which finds itself better funded than many other locations – operates at a rather severe resource disadvantage.
Indeed, the next line in the story notes, “While there are some great PDs, the Vanguard has found that not only are there many more deputy DAs than deputy public defenders, the DA’s office has about five times the number of investigators, clerical and other support than the PD’s office has (21 for the PD v. 82 for the DA).”
It was last Tuesday when Supervisor Don Saylor pushed for staffing equity for the public defender’s office.
Supervisor Saylor said that when the laws and circumstances change, other areas of the criminal justice system are requesting more staffing and they are not seeing that from the public defender’s office “and I would like to see that change.”
He said, “We’ll not be able to do much more with this today, but I’m interested as we form the next year’s budget … that we take a look at how do we appropriately staff the public defender.” He wants to see their requests based on what their actual needs are.
According to stats provided at the Board of Supervisors meeting, the Yolo County Public Defender’s Office represents clients in roughly 80 percent of all criminal matters in the county. And, while the absolute caseload may be lower in Yolo than other counties, the fact that Yolo County has more trials than many larger counties and more trials per capita than any other county in the state increases the workload exponentially.
The Vanguard views the work of the Yolo County Public Defender’s Office as vital to the defense of the accused and the need for criminal justice reform in Yolo County and elsewhere. The office has a number of first-rate attorneys and provides its clients, many of whom are indigent, with an excellent legal defense.
While there are a number of great attorneys working in Yolo County – both private, public and contracted – the Vanguard in general believes that many people are best served by the public defender’s office as they are familiar with the intricacies of the local justice system and are tenacious fighters for their clients.
I have had the pleasure of watching the attorney who represents Mr. Benham, Peter Borruso, a number of times and found him to be a strong and powerful advocate who always fights for his clients.
The Vanguard was not attempting to disparage the work of the public defender’s office in the recent article and apologizes for not making the intent of the statement in question more clear.
Our point last week was simply that public defense around the nation is under-prioritized in local budgets. There are many locations where the caseload for attorneys is well above 500 per year, and other locations which employ or contract attorneys who lack criminal law experience to act as appointed counsel for the indigent.
Yolo County has more equity than many departments around the country, but, even here, there is a huge disadvantage – especially with investigators and support staff.
Nevertheless, we believe that the many excellent attorneys in the Yolo County Public Defender’s Office serve their clients and this community well, despite a number of ongoing challenges.
—David M. Greenwald, Editor, Davis Vanguard