Deputy Public Defender Greg Spiering had his hands full representing a murder suspect accused of slaying two people and injuring a third. But he had help: an investigator who could find new witnesses and reinterview others, review volumes of evidence and help prepare for trial.
Then came budget cuts. Spiering's investigator was laid off -- four months before Tou Xiong's trial -- and Spiering was left to work the case alone.
"I think justice is going to suffer," Spiering said. "The legitimacy of the whole system depends on both sides being adequately prepared."
This year's budget cuts mean big changes in how Stanislaus County prosecutors and deputy public defenders handle cases in an already overburdened court system. They shared in 9 percent spending cuts the Board of Supervisors called for to help balance a $23 million deficit.
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County officials acknowledged that a decision to lay off a deputy public defender who handles about 785 cases, according to a report, may backfire if the county is forced to turn to more expensive private attorneys to represent indigent defendants.
Spiering said there likely will be a tighter grip on funds once used to hire experts to testify in court about topics such as medical evidence or gunshot residue testing. He predicts a slowdown as public defenders may ask to be relieved from cases or seek more time to prepare because they have fewer resources.
Focusing on violent crimes
District Attorney Birgit Fladager said prosecutors are making "more frequent and earlier settlements" in cases rather than taking them to trial because of an overburdened staff. Though prosecutors were spared from layoffs, about 20 positions remain vacant from a two-year hiring freeze. The number of prosecutors has dropped to a level equivalent to about 1996, she said.
Fladager said her office is reviewing fewer cases because of a lower crime rate and because fewer police officers are on the street to make arrests.
"It's one of the reasons we're not absolutely drowning at this point," Fladager said.
Fladager said her emphasis is on prosecuting serious and violent crimes as opposed to quality of life crimes such as being a public nuisance, drunk in public or fighting in public.
"We need to be perhaps a little tougher on making the decision whether to file (charges)," she said.
Fladager is looking into implementing a diversion program for first-time misdemeanor defendants to keep them out of the criminal justice system for crimes such as petty theft or driving without a license.
Kara Dansky, executive director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, said simultaneous cuts to the criminal justice system and services such as welfare and job and housing assistance could make communities more dangerous.
"If we just don't supervise them at all and also fail to provide the needed safety net, we could see some increases in crime," Dansky said.
"In a year or two, we may really see a spike in the crime rate," she said.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.