New Public Defenders for Specialty Treatment Courts

Written by Estero Bay News

July 16, 2023

The County has amended its contract with the public defenders office, increasing its contract for this fiscal year by nearly $100,000 to handle the increased caseload resulting from two specialty courts.

The amendment expands the public defenders workforce to include cases in the Mental Health Diversion Court and the Adult Treatment Court Collaborative/Behavioral Health Treatment Court, according to a County report. The increase was for $96,000 or $8,000 a month, increasing to $5.6 million the contract for base services in FY 2023-24, according to the report.

“When the current contact with Primary Public Defender, San Luis Obispo Defenders, was prepared,” reads the report, “the Adult Treatment Court Collaborative/Behavior Health Treatment Court and Mental Health Diversion specialty programs were being operated without attorney participation. The current contract provides for 24-25 attorneys available on a full-time basis, three full-time paralegals, one half-time paralegal, five full-time investigators, and one full-time social worker.”

The public defenders represent criminal defendants “that cannot afford an attorney. The Constitution of the State of California requires that counties provide for the legal defense of indigents accused of crimes.” The contract calls for the firm to defend all indigent clients under three contracts: the Primary Public Defender, the Conflict Public Defender, and the Conflict-Conflict Public Defender. The Primary Public Defender handles most indigent defense cases appointed by the Court.

The conflict and conflict-conflict contracts come into play when the primary has a conflict of interest with a client. It then falls under the conflict contract, which has other firms under contract. If that firm has a conflict too, the conflict-conflict contract comes into play.

Recent changes in State Law opened up the specialty treatment courts “as an alternative to incarceration,” the report said. “Specialty treatment courts are designed to address specific underlying conditions, such as addiction, trauma or mental health, which contributed to the criminal behavior and to provide tailored support to those in need. People who complete these specialty program experience significant positive lifestyle changes and they have a much lower rate of recidivism.”

Expansion has meant clients in these specialty courts now must have attorneys. Presiding Judge Craig van Rooyan in July 2022 asked the San Luis Obispo Defenders to begin staffing the two new courts. 

“Without staffing,” the report said, “the Court would be forced to pause the court portion of these programs, which would negatively impact the 60-80 participants.”

Despite not being under contract for this, the firm “immediately recognized the importance of these programs and agreed to provide staffing despite a lack of funding. Since August 2022, Steve Rice has been staffing Mental Health Diversion Court and Brian Buckley has been staffing Adult Treatment Court Collaborative/Behavioral Health Treatment Court.”

Logistics were a problem too, as both of the specialty courts meet in the County Courthouse on Fridays at 8:30 a.m. but in different courtrooms, which means they need two attorneys to handle the cases.

“In addition to being present in court, each attorney is required to review treatment reports before the hearing and to attend a meeting with the treatment team, the court and probation. When necessary, the attorney must also be available to meet with participants outside of court and appear on modification motions during the week. The attorney also utilizes the San Luis Obispo Defenders staff of paralegals, investigators, and social worker to effectively represent the interests of our clients in these specialty courts.”

These specialty court advocates’ duties include, “facilitating referral and participation of indigent defendants in any appropriate rehabilitation program and the Mental Health Diversion Pre-Release Program, assisting defendants in applications for needed services, developing sentencing alternatives, and monitoring cases during any probationary period of time. This shall include case management services to facilitate transition to behavioral health treatment and may include providing police reports when requested.” 

Those items help a client get accepted into the specialty courts and once there, the attorney’s duties are handed over to specialty program case managers and treatment providers would take over and the specialty attorney was no longer involved. The Specialty Court Advocate would continue to passively monitor the clients and if/when a client was accused of a violation or facing exclusion, the advocate would assist as needed.”

The public defender contract was renewed in 2021 for 4 years with two, 2-year extensions available through the County Administrative Officer and this amendment adds onto that. The increased duties will not be applied to the last fiscal year (2022-23) but will apply to FY 2023-24, which began July 1.

It remains to be seen if the billing from the past fiscal year will require a further amendment to catch up with the additional costs.

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