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Indigents to Continue Getting Legal Services : Courts: The county public defender says plan to refuse representation to some defendants is postponed and may be scrapped permanently if the office's level of funding is maintained.

July 01, 1993|RENE LYNCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Orange County Public Defender Ronald Y. Butler said Wednesday he will postpone a controversial plan to refuse representation to some indigent defendants while he awaits a final county budget that could give him more funding.

Butler said his policy of rejecting some criminal cases--already invoked once, on June 16--may be scrapped permanently if the county's revised budget keeps funding for the public defender near its 1992-93 level of $17.9 million.

"Changes in the (state) budget make it appear as through we are not going to have to get off cases," Butler said. He has placed the plan on hold, at least until the county recalculates its spending plan later this summer, after the state budget is finalized.

"It looks like we're not going to be reduced 6.3%, so that means we can continue to serve our present caseload," he said.

The new state budget signed by the governor Wednesday night ultimately could send more money to the county and the public defender's office.

County officials said they were pleased that Butler's plan was put on hold.

"I'm pleased they are taking a wait-and-see attitude about this. I'm delighted to hear it," Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez said.

"I think this effort is A-1," Supervisor Thomas F. Riley said.

The county has tentatively approved a $3.6-billion budget for the 1993-94 fiscal year that included $1.2 million in funding cuts to Butler's office. The final budget will not be approved until late August or early September.

Butler said last month that the anticipated budget cut would have made it impossible to provide adequate defense for some of the more than 63,000 clients who needed legal assistance in the past year.

Deputy public defenders on June 16 refused to accept about 100 cases. They had to be forwarded to private criminal case attorneys who contract with the court to provide legal services, generally at a much higher average cost. Rejecting clients at an early stage would prevent disruptions in the midst of cases, Butler said.

Typically, a private counsel is appointed when the public defender has a conflict of interest, as in multiple-defendant cases.

Butler's move last month was criticized by County Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi and other officials, who raised concerns that using private attorneys who were paid higher average fees would ultimately burden the financially strapped county.

In the 1991-92 fiscal year, the public defender handled 61,716 criminal cases, ranging from misdemeanors to death penalty trials, with a budget of $18.2 million. During the same period, the county paid private attorneys and investigators $12.1 million to handle 5,385 cases.

Steven Franks, a budget manager with the county administrative office, said the extension of the state's half-cent sales tax, contained in the new state budget, could mean a financial boost for local budgets and, specifically, the public defender's office.

"We asked the public defender to work with us on this and wait until the budget issue is settled," Franks said. "We won't know where (the county) stands for several weeks, at best."

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