MARTINEZ -- Public defense attorneys are now staffing felony arraignment courtrooms in Contra Costa County, where the prior absence of such attorneys spurred a federal class action lawsuit.
Contra Costa County's former practice -- not uncommon in cash-strapped and rural counties in the nation -- was to assign defense attorneys to indigent criminal defendants after their initial court appearance. That meant that people who couldn't afford bail would sit in jail for up to two weeks before a public attorney would appear at their side in court. Public Defender Robin Lipetzky said that the office had been fighting for money to have deputy public defenders appear at arraignments long before a local attorney in December filed suit in U.S. District Court in Oakland to force the issue. The lawsuit seeks damages for allegedly violating defendants' Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
The funding came through last month when the board of supervisors approved a spending plan for $20.7 million in state prison realignment money the county received to incarcerate and supervise low-level felons who before the passage of Assembly Bill 109 would likely have ended up in state prison.
The state prison realignment bill authorized the placement of low-level, nonviolent offenders in county jails or other programs to reduce prison overcrowding and curb recidivism. The law took effect October 2011.
The Public Defender's Office got $569,000 per year to staff two deputy public defenders and one paralegal in Contra Costa County's in-custody arraignment courtrooms in Martinez and Richmond. The office was also awarded $92,000 for its "clean state" program to help people successful in completing probation-only sentences get their conviction expunged, and $117,000 to hire a social worker.
As part of the new "arraignment court early representation" program, deputy public defenders have been manning the arraignment courtrooms since Jan. 7.
"It's going really well," Lipetzky said. "We are getting a lot of people released on their own recognizance and saving a lot of court time and jail bed space by setting court dates more quickly."
"We've been trying to find a way to make this happen for quite a while," Lipetzky added.
Meanwhile, attorneys for Contra Costa County are trying to get the class action lawsuit dismissed.
Point Richmond attorney Christopher Martin, who filed the suit, said he's been inundated with calls and mail from current and former defendants, their families, and attorneys from across the country who he hopes will follow his lead.
"Civil rights are not dependent on whether or not the county has the money," Martin said. "If that was the case, they wouldn't have to feed inmates."
Michael Risher, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said having public defenders at arraignments is the next best thing to having attorneys meet with newly charged defendants before they step into court. When people sit in jail without representation, they risk losing their jobs, educational opportunities and housing, he said.
"It's the responsibility of the government to provide timely representation," Risher said. "If there were substantial delays, I'm surprised that went on."
Contact Malaika Fraley at 925-234-1684. Follow her at Twitter.com/malaikafraley.