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Public defender office adopts 'holistic' model
Santa Cruz Sentinel - 7/16/2022
Jul. 16—SANTA CRUZ — "We want rich people to be begging for the public defender," Santa Cruz County's first head of indigent defense said while strolling through her office's new May Street home.
New Santa Cruz County Public Defender Heather Rogers is aiming to offer a legal experience to the county's least wealthy that allows them to experience the same "boutique" legal experience as those with ample financial means.
"That's how rich people get defense service," Rogers said. "They get a full-service team of people trying to make sure you never end up there again... We do see these high-profile celebrity cases where you have lawyers three benches deep, one to carry the briefcase, one to take the notes, one to prep the hair. Our clients have suffered from not even necessarily having a team that's asking those basic holistic questions. It's a resource issue."
Leading the Sentinel on a tour of her office's new 420 May Ave. home — the coincidental reference to cannabis-use slang has caused office employees a chuckle — Rogers revealed remodeled office space featuring extensive public art in two buildings. One of the offices, with interview rooms and quasi-one-way glass windows, continues to echo use by its long-time former tenant, the County Department of Child Support Services.
Emphasizing supportive resources
Having a sufficient attorney-client ratio, plus the proper support staff levels is "the first step in providing an exceptional public defense," Rogers said. The next is offering a "holistic defense" in which the Public Defender's Office brings in social workers to address the root causes of recidivism, coupled with an aggressive defense, she said. The office is also expanding its collateral consequences of criminal convictions and reentry support services. The office has IT Business Systems Analyst Dylan Jones overseeing a team building a client case management system, identifying things such as each case's staffing levels, Rogers said. The team also is in the process of designing a new holistic defense intake system that will track individual client needs and outcomes in a way differing from traditional case statistics.
"It's difficult, without data, to understand where we are right now. For example, in our holistic intake, we're capturing whether somebody is housed, whether somebody is employed, whether their housing or their employment is threatened, whether they're in school, whether they're receiving or eligible for benefits," Rogers said. "A lot of information that we've never collected before at the outset of a case. Basic data has been collected, but it's not tied to the metrics that we're looking at, which are tied to the metrics of the outcomes that we want to see."
The Public Defender's Office felony supervisor is Jim McMillan, who has been practicing criminal defense in Santa Cruz County since 1986. Part of Rogers' strategy is to include a system of robust attorney supervision and mentorship, she said. McMillan said that when he accepted the offer to transfer to the new office, he was intrigued by Rogers' vision of client-centered holistic defense.
"It's really something that has been growing and small corners and I think it's something that fits well with Santa Cruz, it fits well with our local probation department and it's something that we really haven't been able to do," McMillan said. "Clients have needs and they'll ask us to do virtually anything and a lot of times you have to draw the line and say, 'I just can't do that, I've got to limit myself to this one aspect in your case."
New budget, more employees
Rogers, a 48-year-old Santa Cruz native, was hired as the county public defender in October, stepped into a role overseen for more than six decades by contracted private law firms, including her former employer. Just days earlier — July 1 — the formal handoff of county public defense duties occurred between the Biggam, Christensen and Minsloff firm and the new Santa Cruz County Office of the Public Defender. The Biggam firm, which provided the county public defense for 47 years, is expected to shutter as its partners retire, after tying up loose cases.
Behind-the-scenes work to establish the new Public Defender's Office, has been ongoing for months.
"I worked with the CAO's (County Administrative Office) to look at our case numbers and the staffing that we had at BCM and try to move toward meeting the national guidelines for indigent defense caseloads," Rogers said. "We really look carefully at the historic caseloads over the last decade, the historic staffing and how we could make sure we were at least moving toward the guidelines. We're not quite there yet."
As of last week, Rogers had hired approximately 25 defense attorneys, building toward a goal of 31 total. Many of those attorneys, offered right of first opportunity, had transferred from Roger's own former employer, at Biggam, Christensen and Minsloff. At full staffing, the Public Defender's Office will have an additional eight investigators, four paralegals and 10 administrative professionals, plus social workers and client advocates. Rogers recently hired 41-year-old Chief Deputy Public Defender Jonathan Cruz, a 15-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Public Defender's Office, and had recruited a director for the office's holistic defense unit who will arrive after Labor Day. Efforts to secure a chief investigator were ongoing.
"I've really seen the impact that this kind of advocacy can have on someone," said Cruz of his past experience with a client-centered defense model. "The first person I ever got out of prison was in for 29-plus years, since he was a kid. We didn't know what was going to happen with him. But we were able to connect him with housing, a network of people to help him get to the DMV, get his social security card, getting a job within three weeks. And he's thriving now."
The office has been authorized in the 2022-2023 fiscal year to spend a $12 million budget for a total staff of 57. That budget represents about a $2 million increase over what the former main contract firm was typically assigned, Rogers said. The county has seen a cost saving, however, in shedding one of two private alternate public defense contracts. Multi-client public defense cases typically have representation from separate law firms. For those rarer three-or-more-defendant cases, Rogers said, the county will look to the existing Criminal Defense Conflicts Program, a panel of private attorneys who are available to be appointed on a case-by-case basis.
Santa Cruz County joins the majority of counties statewide in housing public defense as a permanent office. Regardless of who provides it, in practice, a largely free public legal defense is assigned for criminal cases to all defendants in need. Less common nationwide is the holistic defense model, meaning Santa Cruz County may become a leader in public defense, rather than "just playing catch-up," according to Rogers. One of the models Rogers has studied is that of the Bronx Defenders, where she recently recruited her new director of holistic defense from. The office also has a two-year contract with Partners For Justice, a national organization that trains and placed non-attorney advocates — three recent college graduates and a supervisor — in public defender offices to help provide clients with case navigation and wraparound support addressing issues addressed during the initial intake.
"The thought was, if we went further downstream to look at why people were landing in the criminal justice system, that we'd have better results in keeping them out of it," Rogers said.
Meet the public defender
—Who: Heather Rogers.
—What: 15-minute public appointments available.
—When: During biweekly office hours.
—Where: In-person or virtually. Rotates between offices — Santa Cruz, 420 May Ave., and Watsonville, 315 Main St., Suite 204.
—How: Email PDO@santacruzcounty.us or call 831-454-5300 for an appointment.
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