MARTINEZ -- As she waits for the trial of the woman charged with murdering her son, Antioch resident Lucinda Jackson has come to learn firsthand how relentless budget cuts are slowing the wheels of justice in Contra Costa County and extending the pain for victims and their families.
Courtrooms are closing, burnt-out prosecutors and public defenders are fleeing -- leaving behind crushing case loads -- and people like Jackson are left waiting as the most serious, felony cases drag though the courts.
"I feel like I have a wound that's open and can't be sewn up. I can't move on," Jackson said. "I am really upset. I don't think we should suffer because of the county's cutbacks."
It's a dire situation guaranteed only to get worse. The Contra Costa Superior Court is eliminating programs to meet another $7 million in state-mandated budget cuts this fiscal year; prosecutors are considering striking against the county over compensation; and the public defenders are nearing an impasse in their own negotiations.
Jackson, 52, became a mother again to her grandson after her son, Andrew Le'Mar Green, was fatally shot in Pittsburg in February 2010. Jackson said she's desperate to move 5½-year-old Savion where he isn't known as "the little boy whose mommy killed his daddy," to a school where he'll get special attention for his autism.
Her plans are on hold because a shortage of attorneys at the Public Defender's Office has delayed the trial for Savion's mother, Jennell Wright.
"It's an insult to my family. They are basically saying we don't have the money, so Le'Mar doesn't matter," Jackson said.
After a half-dozen postponements, Wright went to trial with a mental health defense last winter, but it ended with a hung jury. Now the retrial, originally set for May, has been delayed to 2013.
At a recent hearing before Judge Leslie Landau, Public Defender Robin Lipetzky said she's not confident that Wright's attorney will be ready for the new January trial date because of a back-to-back trial schedule.
"I wish that this county gave its Public Defender's Office the resources that other counties give to their public defenders. I understand you've lost many of your best attorneys to counties that give them a lighter case load," Landau said in response. "It's a terrible state of affairs."
Public attorneys from both sides of the courtroom have been leaving Contra Costa for better-equipped offices in other counties. Each office, staffed with the lowest-paid public criminal attorneys in the Bay Area, earning annual salaries from $70,000 to $150,000, have traditionally kept down costs by hiring entry-level attorneys and promoting from within. When a veteran leaves, the person is replaced with someone deemed too inexperienced to handle the most serious and complex cases.
Since 2006, the number of attorneys at the District Attorney's Office has dropped from more than 100 to around 70. The Public Defender's Office had 38 attorneys on its felony team in 2008; today, there are 26.
Among the steps taken by the District Attorney's Office is an early disposition calendar at its Richmond courthouse. For the past year, defendants charged with certain nonviolent felonies, like auto theft, are allowed to plead guilty before a preliminary hearing.
In exchange, they get a break in their sentence that's "less than what most prosecutors find to be in the interest of justice," said senior deputy district attorney Harold Jewett.
"We just don't have the manpower," Jewett said.
Johanna Schonfield is one of seven prosecutors who quit Contra Costa County this year. She makes less money at the Santa Cruz County District Attorney's Office but says her quality of life has vastly improved now that she handles one-third the case load.
Last summer, Schonfield said she dropped to an unhealthy weight working late nights and weekends of unpaid overtime while prosecuting six consecutive felony trials. She never saw her family. When she had no time for her boyfriend, he ended their relationship.
"People can't believe what my caseload was there," Schonfield said. "It's just not appropriate."
Schonfield recently prosecuted a felony sex crime case in Santa Cruz County that took little more than a year from arrest to sentencing. She said such cases in Contra Costa County took a minimum of two years and some up to five.
As memories of witnesses faded over time, the cases got weaker.
"It just became standard (in Contra Costa) that aging these cases was acceptable" Schonfield said. "Justice and victims' rights became secondary to our case loads.
"There was no end in sight; that was the scary part for me."
County supervisors on Sept. 1 imposed a one-year employment contract that reduces overall compensation for the deputy district attorneys by another 10 percent. The county couldn't legally impose in the contract a new retirement tier that officials are counting on to provide huge savings long term, and the prosecutors weren't willing to agree to it unless their pay cut would sunset at the end of the contract, said deputy district attorney Mary Knox.
Deputy district attorneys and local police departments urged supervisors not to impose the contract, saying the office is unable to retain experienced attorneys to the detriment of the larger criminal justice system.
Contra Costa has taken a one-size-fits-all approach to labor negotiations, saying no union should receive special consideration as the county weathers a financial crisis. The attorneys believe they have been subjected to disproportionate concessions over time, causing an exodus of top talent.
The county has authorized the Public Defender's Office to hire three more attorneys but only after its union signs a labor contract with the county, Lipetzky said. Mike Kelly, head of the public defender's union, said attorneys have agreed to a pay cut of up to 5.24 percent, paying their full share of pension contributions and increases in medical insurance premiums, along with the new retirement tier.
But their sticking point, just as with the deputy district attorneys, is a demand that pay return to its current level at the end of the contract.
Kelly thinks the likelihood of some kind work action by Contra Costa's criminal attorneys is "very high."
"We are not going to cross (the prosecutors') picket line if they go that far," Kelly said. "And we expect they will do the same."
The Public Defender's Office, having lost 12 attorneys since 2008, has refused any new clients at least once every month since November 2010 because of understaffing, Lipetzky said. Refused cases go to private attorneys, costing the county hundreds of thousands over what it would pay for new public defenders.
There are hidden costs as well. When a criminal case moves at a snail's pace, that's more money being spent on a defendant's housing, transportation in court and court clerical work. "The inefficiencies just multiply," Lipetzky said.
That's something Jackson said she thinks of when she considers Wright's case.
"I don't think it's fair that Contra Costa County can put my son on a shelf and continue to house her, feed her, medicate her," Jackson said. "If you are bleeding from everywhere, I would think you'd want to get it over with, pass her on to the state of California."
Contact Malaika Fraley at 925-234-1684. Follow her at Twitter.com/malaikafraley