State - INACTIVE

Cases in the hundreds anger Stanislaus County public defenders

On Friday morning, Deputy Public Defender Marcus Mumford strides along a Stanislaus County Courthouse hallway, his arms full of the case files he's working on:

A formerly homeless man on the hook for stealing $79.97 in jeans and other clothes from a Ceres Kmart. The man argues about their price: "They ain't no 501's," he says.

A woman the police say continually beat her husband produces a plastic grocery bag full of prescription medication bottles to prove she's straight now.

A father set to have child abuse charges dropped after successfully completing parenting classes, only to get busted for driving on a suspended license.

All this by 9:30 a.m., but Mumford is unfazed.

"This is a mild day," Mumford said. He handles 20 cases on his most hectic mornings.

Stanislaus County's government-appointed lawyers have been overburdened for years, but rising caseloads and the budget squeeze have pushed them to the breaking point, Public Defender Tim Bazar said.

In the Northern San Joaquin Valley, attorneys say the number of cases they take per year, more than double the maximum caseload recommended by the American Bar Association, is akin to legal triage.

Felony attorneys hit an average high of 337 cases in San Joaquin County over the past year. On average, public defenders who handle primarily misdemeanors dealt with 1,234 cases a year in Merced County.

David Carroll, research director for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, called those numbers "stunning."

"Public defenders are saying 'Enough is enough, we can't do it,' " Carroll said. "When you're just simply creating a mill and running people through and rubber-stamping them, you're no longer trying to get it right."

In May, the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors called for a 9 percent cut in spending and grudgingly laid off a deputy public defender with a workload of 785 cases.

No easy way out

Bazar called those cuts the most drastic in 30 years. County officials said public defenders had to share in the collective pain.

"I don't see an easy way to work around it," Bazar said. "It's not quite like other areas, where if you just reduce the staff you can say 'We won't get the work done.' Somebody has to represent everybody accused of a crime that could result in jail time."

That was decided in a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said everyone has the right to an attorney, even if he is too poor to pay for one.

In Stanislaus County, at least three out of four criminal defendants fall into that category.

Bazar said cutbacks to law enforcement and the district attorney's office mean fewer criminal cases are filed. Also, the Modesto court's system of keeping cases in the same courtroom has lead to quicker resolutions, Bazar said.

Merced County Public Defender Michael Pro said he's struck an agreement with the courts and district attorney to send less serious misdemeanors into diversion programs at arraignment, somewhat lessening the burden.

But the staggering workloads have led some public defenders in counties including Fresno and San Joaquin to push back.

After 15 of the 50 attorneys in the San Joaquin public defender's office lost their jobs, Public Defender Peter Fox said his office now refuses to take on new indigent clients in the county's satellite courthouses in Manteca and Lodi.

300 cases declined

The Fresno public defender's office sued the county over layoffs in their office, but a judge Sept. 15 said county supervisors acted within their legal authority when they made the cuts last year. The office has declined to handle more than 300 cases this year and the county will have to pay for private attorneys, said Scott Baly, a deputy public defender.

"We see this as an outsourcing of our jobs," Baly said.

Back at the Stanislaus County public defender's office Friday afternoon, Mumford is still performing his daily juggling act.

The files for Monday are open on his desk. He fields phone calls from his clients' relatives, social workers and probation officers.

Then there's the murder case set to go to trial at the end of this month. Trials often mean working on weekends, Mumford said.

He wishes he could do more for his clients, but his caseload has risen "exponentially" in his nine years as a deputy public defender.

"We're kind of like the Marine Corps," Mumford said. "You have to do a lot with a little."

The Fresno Bee contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337. Follow her at twitter.com/modbeecourts.

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