For thousands of people charged with such crimes as public drunkenness or resisting arrest, Department 42 is their first and last legal stop.

In this Hall of Justice courtroom, a stream of defendants arrives from jail for their first chance to have a judge review their case — without any attorney in sight.

There, many are given a legal Hobson's choice: Plead guilty and go home, or ask for a lawyer and spend longer in custody.

It is a choice offered to people who at times appear not to understand the legal consequences and who, in the worst cases, may not even be guilty of the crimes.

Defendants in Department 42, the primary courtroom for misdemeanor crimes serious enough to warrant jail time, face the same predicament that Santa Clara County defendants encounter in all other misdemeanor courtrooms: The rooms are not staffed with attorneys, so they are on their own as judges offer them a way to end their legal proceedings.

Impoverished defendants in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Mateo and even smaller counties such as Yolo, San Joaquin and Shasta are routinely provided public defenders at their first court appearance, known as an arraignment.

But in Santa Clara, along with a handful of other counties including Contra Costa and Napa, public defenders and prosecutors are assigned only to felony courtrooms. Defendants charged with misdemeanors can expect to be represented only if they hire their own lawyer for the proceeding, a rare occurrence.

Officials cite costs

The county's chief public defender, district attorney and the incoming presiding judge of the Superior Court criminal division all acknowledged in recent interviews that justice would be better served if a lawyer were present at all arraignments.

But each said in separate interviews that such representation is too expensive.

"This current economic environment simply does not permit this type of expenditure when there are more critical demands on all public law offices," Judge Phil Pennypacker said.

That explanation shocks legal experts nationally and in other California counties.

Norman Lefstein, a law professor at Indiana University, said the practice leaves judges and the local bar "complicit" in depriving defendants of their right to representation by an attorney.

"This is America," San Francisco public defender Jeff Adachi said. "If you were facing a year in jail, wouldn't you want a lawyer to consult with? It's like facing a major illness and forgoing a doctor. You just wouldn't do it."

The problem of lawyerless courtrooms became evident as part of an ongoing Bay Area News Group review of the criminal justice system and its handling of discretionary crimes, including resisting arrest and public drunkenness.

Those cases — which rest heavily on the word of police rather than physical evidence — commonly are resolved in guilty pleas by unrepresented defendants; several later complained in interviews that the police improperly used force and then charged them with concocted offenses.

Unsettling disparity

The newspaper review revealed a startling disparity in the outcome of 246 resisting arrest cases that were resolved since January 2008, depending upon whether a defendant was represented by a lawyer. More than half of the defendants had no lawyers. Almost nine in 10 defendants who represented themselves pleaded guilty or no contest to the resisting arrest charge — commonly at the first arraignment. Almost half of those who were represented saw charges eventually reduced or dismissed.

To be sure, those who pleaded guilty, in many cases, did so because they had no real defense and were willing to acknowledge their guilt.

But other defendants without attorneys said they offered their guilty pleas because the system pressured them into it.

"I wanted to plead not guilty and I wanted to get out at the same time," said Sergio Batres, who insisted he was innocent of the resisting arrest charge filed against him. Citing the burden of his incarceration on his wife, who works full time, and their two children, Batres pleaded guilty to avoid a lengthy and uncertain process in return for a finite sentence.

"That deal was the only sure thing I had," he said.

Judges' approaches

A Bay Area News Group reporter watched lawyerless arraignments in a number of courtrooms in recent weeks, and reviewed transcripts of other hearings. Every judge told the defendants of their rights and warned them of the dangers of representing themselves. The speeches varied in length and in clarity. Some judges took pains to protect the rights of the accused; others appeared to openly encourage defendants to plead guilty in rushed hearings.

One day recently, the last defendant to be called in Department 42 faced charges of a traffic infraction and a failure to appear in court, previously, to answer the charge. The defendant tried to explain that he missed the court date because he was in custody and not brought to the courtroom, when Judge Linda Condron cut him off, demanding a quick answer:

He could plead guilty to the traffic infraction, and she would drop the charge of failing to appear in court. Otherwise, the defendant would return to jail to await another hearing with a lawyer.

The man took the deal.

A reporter watched a session in which Judge Randall Schneider told more than one defendant, "I'd like to resolve this matter today," which would probably happen only if the defendant chose not to contest the charge.

In contrast, in a special arraignment court for domestic violence misdemeanors, defendants are first shown an 18-minute video on which Pennypacker explained to defendants their constitutional right to counsel, and the serious consequences of pleading guilty.

He stated on the video, "I do not want to encourage you to plead guilty simply to get out of jail," a point reiterated by Judge Michele McKay McCoy in the courtroom after the video had ended.

In that courtroom, where guilty pleas carried especially serious legal implications, virtually everyone ended up pleading not guilty and getting a lawyer.

Other court sessions left defendants openly confused.

One defendant, apparently meaning to plead "no contest," pleaded instead "no continent."

Defense attorney Daniel Mayfield watched one afternoon of an arraignment courtroom with a reporter, offering commentary as one defendant after another pleaded guilty. Of about 20 defendants, Mayfield offered issues that he said should have been raised on all but two of them.

Needed compromise

In a recent interview the county's public defender, Mary Greenwood, called providing a lawyer for that first appearance an important "goal."

District Attorney Dolores Carr, who has chosen not to staff the misdemeanor arraignments with prosecutors in the absence of public defenders, echoed Greenwood's view, but added, "To staff these court appearances, we would have to decrease services in other areas. Within these limitations, protecting public safety is best accomplished by the current compromises rather than diverting resources from more serious crimes."

But San Francisco defender Adachi rejected the idea that staffing the misdemeanor courtrooms was too expensive, calling it wrong to deprive people of "the benefit of counsel at a critical stage."

Seattle University law professor Robert Boruchowitz, who serves on the American Bar Association committee on indigent defense, referred to that court hearing as "the most important event" in the lives of many defendants — they could face jail, resulting in lost homes or deportation.

Yet, he said, "We are giving them a couple of minutes and no help when there is no lawyer there. That is not what is supposed to happen in American courts."