A previous version of this article stated that San Benito County was pursuing a contract with the law offices of Fitzgerald, Alvarez & Ciummo for second-tier public defender services. That was incorrect.

The San Benito County Board of Supervisors approved a two-year contract last week with the law offices of Harry Damkar as the new primary public defender in the county. The move comes after a report by the Office of the State Public Defender highlighted the lack of adequate services in the county for indigent defendants. 

However, local officials say this is a temporary solution as the county works to create its own public defender’s office.

Officials say that the recent report on the state of public defense in the county is “alarming” and are moving to create a better system for defendants.

Out of California’s 58 counties, 25 of these have no form of public defender, whether through contracted firms or a county office. 

In San Benito County, indigent defendants have been underserved, according to a report presented in February to the board of supervisors by Ashanti Mitchell, an attorney with the state public defender’s Indigent Defense Improvement Division.

The report stated that the county’s contract public defense system has no structured leadership; suffers from high defense attorney turnover; is underfunded and that there is a lack of transparency and oversight.

“The current contract system is not working. It’s not working for the attorneys; It’s not working for the court and it’s not working for the clients,” Mitchell said during the Feb. 27 meeting.

According to 2023 data, only 50% of felonies were resolved within 12 months and 67% of felony clients surveyed spoke to their attorneys for less than five minutes, according to the report. Just over half, or 52% of clients reported they had not communicated with their appointed defender after being incarcerated. 

The report also found the county’s contract public defender was understaffed—with only two dedicated attorneys— compared to the district attorney’s office, which employed six attorneys and eight additional staff members when the report was completed.

Based on the report’s findings, the state public defender’s office recommended that San Benito County establish a local or regional public defender’s office and allocate funding in a more equitable manner. The short-term recommendation was for the county to request proposals for a new primary public defender contract.

The board of supervisors took on that short-term recommendation and voted to grant a contract to Damkar in March.

Damkar’s contract will cost the county $996,000 per year for the initial two years with an option for another two-year renewal after that.

There are three tiers of public defense in the county, and Damkar moves up from second-tier to the primary tier. The tiers exist to resolve conflicts of interest in which more than one party is charged with a crime in a given court case.

The law offices of Fitzgerald, Alvarez & Ciummo will no longer serve as first-tier public defender. Deputy County Counsel Ekam Brar said in an email to the Free Lance that county staff will bring a new second-tier contract proposal to the board of supervisors, but it will not be with Fitzgerald, Alvarez & Ciummo. Pamela Brown will remain as third-tier public defender. 

San Benito County District 2 Supervisor Kollin Kosmicki told the Free Lance on April 16 that while they are glad to have an interim contract with Damkar and the other law firms, it is only a “stopgap.” 

“We’re headed toward creating a public defender’s office—a permanent public defender’s office—in the county. I think it’s absolutely necessary and there really isn’t an alternative to that,” Kosmicki said.

The county expects the process of creating an office to take about two years. Its budget already allocates close to $1 million for public defense, according to Kosmicki. An additional $500,000 will come from the Community Corrections Partnership, which is an advisory committee made up of local law enforcement and government officials.

“Reforming our public defender’s office is right up there with efforts to save the hospital as sort of these unexpected challenges that have come up, but that’s why we’re in these roles. [I] am proud of our board, that we’re taking the bull by the horn, and we’re serious about this,” Kosmicki said.

“I for one will make sure that this remains a priority as long as I’m on the board, making sure that the public defender’s office is high quality and that we’re giving people the defense they deserve.”

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