Preview: Supervisors to discuss public defender contracts

Greg LaForge has worked in San Benito County since 1989, when he started in the district attorney's office as a prosecutor.

The San Benito County Supervisors on Tuesday at 9 a.m. will hold a special board meeting in which they will discuss budget items, including a report from an ad-hoc committee on the public defender contracts.

Supervisors will discuss approving a letter to the two contracted public defenders requesting more information about the number and type of cases public defenders are handled in the office as well as any cost recovery received by the office. The public defender’s budget came up as one possible area where the county may be able to save money. The two contracted officers include the Law Office of Harry Damkar and the Law Offices of Gregory M. LaForge, who have worked with the county as public defenders for many years.

The letter included in the agenda packet for approval on Tuesday asks for information on how many adult felony and misdemeanor cases were handled in each office, how many juvenile cases, how many cases involved special circumstances such as capital or life without possibility of parole, among other questions related to the case load.

The defense of suspected criminals who cannot afford their own attorney costs San Benito County more than $1 million dollars a year – and 8 percent of those cases eat up 35 percent of the budget, according to county figures.

LaForge and Damkar have contracts that total $521,132 – with provisions for special compensation when they handle cases that involves the death penalty or life in prison. Last year, with special compensation, the attorneys received $650,000 for services.

LaForge said he and Damkar handle about 92 percent of the public defender cases in the county. County Counsel Matthew Granger reported at December supervisors’ meeting the other eight percent of cases use up 35 percent of the budget each year.

“Something is wrong with that number or seems to suggest it clearly,” Granger said. “I see this as an issue there.”

He said while the county has no control over how much crime occurs, the expenditures have stayed fairly stable for the last five years. The district attorney’s office, though, has had a decline in funding since 2010.

The 8 percent of cases that went to uncontracted attorneys included those that involved multiple defendants. Each defendant is entitled to his or her own defense attorney. So if there are more than two defendants in a case, the court assigns an attorney other than LaForge and Damkar. Some of the attorneys to serve as public defenders last year included Elvira Robinson, Arthur Cantu and Arlene Allan.

Granger said the attorneys who are hired to represent defendants without a contract charge up to $150 an hour for their services.

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