Budget cuts impact public defenders in Riverside County and across the country

Some legal observers are concerned indigent defendants lack adequate support

RIVERSIDE, Calif. - Across the country, budget cuts make it increasingly difficult for public defenders to do their jobs.

In many places, they're severely overworked and understaffed, leading some to question the quality of the services they provide to defendants who can't afford  their own attorneys.

We spoke with the newly appointed Riverside County Public Defender" to see how his staff is responding to the growing workload.
"There are always too many cases, and there are never enough resources to go around but we are doing the best we can," said Riverside County Public Defender Steven Harmon.

Just about three weeks into his new job, Harmon talked about his new responsibilities, and the staff he oversees.
Having worked as a criminal defense lawyer in the Inland Empire for 40 years, Harmon long admired the position he now has.
He now has his work cut out for him, along with the 114 Deputy Public Defenders on his staff, a number which is down from 149 on staff five years ago.
They serve  poor defendants in one of California's fastest growing counties.

"Everyone is doing double duty and everyone is working harder than they've ever worked.  But the job is getting done," said Harmon

Like most public defender's offices across the country, the Riverside County office must do more with less.

Five years ago, the annual budget funded by the county was $37.1 million dollars.
This year's budget is $30.6 million dollars.
Harmon couldn't say the average number of cases his attorney's handle during their 60 hour work weeks, but says he could easily use about 20 additional attorneys to handle the workload.

"What it would mean would be the caseloads for each individual lawyer would be lower, which means the pressure on each individual lawyer would be lower, and their families would appreciate that," said Harmon.

Valley criminal defense attorney Dale Gribow knows the work of public defenders, having served as one in Los Angeles County for five years, before opening his private practice in Palm Desert.
Gribow agrees with some legal observers who blame minimum funding for public defense nationwide not only on the economic downturn, but also on a lack of political will to put more money toward the effort. 

"The problem is not the competency of the public defender in my opinion.  It is the lack of funds to have enough lawyers to interview all the people charged with crimes, and to give them enough time," said Gribow.

Across the country, a shortage of public defenders and the money to pay for them is leading to a backlog of cases.
Some people worry that people who can't hire their own lawyers don't get adequate representation.
But, Steven Harmon says that is not a problem in Riverside County.

"I've not seen one case, not one case, while i was in private practice looking from the outside in to this office, or while I've been here, although its been a short time, one moment of a lack of justice because of a lack of resources," said Harmon. 

The right to having a court appointed attorney for criminal defendants who can't afford their own is the direct result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision back in 1963.

That right is among the Miranda Rights read to crime suspects when they are arrested.

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