OC’s Criminal Justice System is at Risk from Attorney Exodus, Union Says

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The District Attorney's Office in Downtown Santa Ana.

Most of the time, local prosecutors and public defenders are arguing against each other in court.

This week, both are calling out Orange County supervisors, arguing they are destabilizing the justice system by underpaying public advocates.

In public comments Tuesday, county attorneys said many of their colleagues are now leaving for better-paying jobs in neighboring counties where housing also costs less, including two public defenders who left last week.

“I am simply here to beg of you for some fair treatment,” said Kristin Bracic, a deputy district attorney who prosecutes child sexual assault cases. She was one of eight county attorneys who spoke publicly Tuesday to county supervisors, who are in charge of their compensation.

“When you price out the existing attorneys in our respective offices, you are causing us to lose attorneys at an alarming rate,” Bracic said, adding that she had $350,000 in student loan debt and continues to pay one third of her income toward it.

Bracic said her case load has gone from 22 cases to 32 cases over her six years in the DA’s sexual assault unit, “because we don’t have enough [attorneys] in our office.”

“You need to think about yourselves as well in this situation,” she told supervisors, “because the justice system is going to be out of control, and you’re going to be the ones left holding the bag.”

County supervisors, whose negotiations with the attorneys have broken down into an impasse, didn’t respond Tuesday, other than to point to a federal program to help public employees with student loans – one that has rejected 99 percent of applications and that President Trump proposed eliminating entirely in his new federal budget proposal.

The labor contract expired last June for 510 county prosecutors, public defenders and other county attorneys, including those who prosecute child support services cases. They’re represented by the Orange County Attorneys Association.

Out of OC’s roughly 18,000 county employees, the attorneys’ association is now the only group of employees without a county contract.

“All of us work more than 40 hours a week. And we don’t get paid overtime, which means that’s no extra cost to you. We’re just asking that our contract be fair and reasonable,” said Alexandra Chindris, a public defender at the county, during public comments.

County spokeswoman Molly Nichelson, citing the ongoing labor negotiations, declined to comment about the attorneys’ concerns.

“We are losing people at an exponential rate to other jurisdictions, to other counties where they compensate them better,” said Mena Guirguis, a district attorney prosecutor and president of the attorneys’ union, in an interview Tuesday.

He said the county’s own data shows the senior attorneys “are 15 percent behind in take home pay, 8 percent behind in base salary, and about 6 percent [behind] in total compensation,” compared with other counties in the region.

“So by all metrics we are way behind our neighboring counties, where it is much, much cheaper to be able to afford a home,” Guirguis said. “We’re not asking to be in the top three, top two. Literally, our goal has been to be right in the middle.”

Voice of OC requested the county’s data on how its compensation of public defenders and prosecutors compares with other counties, which was not provided by the end of the day Tuesday.

Michelle Steel was the only county supervisor to respond to the public defenders and prosecutors, saying she wanted to know how many of them had utilized a program to forgive student debt.

“You know, we’ve been hearing from the attorneys’ association, you know, how much loans – school loans that they cannot really pay. But there’s a program, government employees [are] eligible [for], to have student loan debt forgiven,” Steel said.

“So, could you find out how many people…can apply?” she asked the county’s human resources director. “It seems like it started [in] 2008 or something, and they have to work here for 10 years.”

She asked for the numbers of people eligible to apply, by the time she and other supervisors have their next closed session discussions of the negotiations. “I would love to hear it,” Steel said.

Steel appeared to be referring to the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which started in 2008 and is supposed to help forgive student loans for people who’ve worked in a public service job for 10 years.

But of the 54,000 people nationally who applied for the loans in the year ending last May, only 1 percent were approved, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Guidance for the loans was “fragmented” across hundreds of emails and other documents, according to a 2018 investigation by the GAO.

Steel didn’t return a phone message asking if that’s the program she was referring to.

Last year, she and the other county supervisors approved $151 million in raises for sheriff’s deputies without public discussion.

They also moved $24 million from the Health Care Agency and other county agencies last year to cover Sheriff’s Department cost overruns, which are mostly due to salary increases for deputies that supervisors approved in 2016.

The sheriff’s deputies’ union spends more than any other group on the current supervisors’ elections, including more than $300,000 in recent weeks support of supervisors Andrew Do and Don Wagner’s re-elections.

Over the five fiscal years ending in June 2016, county supervisors cut about $39 million in annual funding they control from the county Health Care Agency, which includes mental health services, while at the same time adding $59 million to the Sheriff’s Department’s annual budget.

The county attorneys said they’re ready to fight for what they consider fairer compensation.

“It’s in our DNA as public defenders to fight,” said Chindris, the public defender, during her public comments.

“We fight for people who are underprivileged. We fight for people who aren’t treated fairly. And now it’s our turn to stand up and fight for ourselves when we’re the ones not being treated fairly.”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.