On Tuesday, Orange County’s top prosecutor publicly opposed a $4 million state grant to the county Public Defender’s office.
OC Supervisors unanimously voted to accept the grant that morning – the second round of such funding that would’ve otherwise gone routinely and without much discussion.
Until OC District Attorney Todd Spitzer objected.
The issue, according to him:
The grants would fund public defender programs to represent people for homicide resentencing and potential early parole for people convicted at a young age, as well as the vacating of prior convictions under certain circumstances.
It ties into overhead legislative efforts to reform California’s justice system.
And in Orange County, it’s created a debate about which local justice arm is truly under-resourced in a “post-conviction” California:
The office that prosecutes you, or the office that defends you?
Spitzer argued the former.
“What’s happening today is the legislature is committed to early release (from prisons). The Governor’s committed to closing prisons, and they’re funding public defenders across the state,” Spitzer told supervisors on Tuesday.
“They’re not funding the courts. Post conviction work is off the charts for the courts. And post conviction work for the District Attorney’s office is unbelievable.”
He said the county would need to increase his office’s funding in order to fight back against the public defender’s office, arguing that – with over 192 cases already under review for potential overturning – he couldn’t keep up without more attorneys.
He made frequent mention that morning of Thomas Maniscalco, the 78-year-old co-founder of the Hessian Motorcycle Club, convicted in 1994 of three execution-style murders in 1980.
Under California’s compassionate release system for terminally-ill people, Maniscalco was released earlier this month from state custody, and Spitzer said the county only had 10 days to try and stop it.
“The workload today is almost 50/50 new cases and dealing with all these retroactive cases,” Spitzer said. “This grant money looks free, but it has tremendous financial implications for the county.”
Then came the Public Defender’s time to defend itself.
“At the end of the day, Mr. Spitzer’s budget, the District Attorney’s budget, is twice that of the public defender’s office – which creates its own systemic inequities,” said the office’s top boss, Martin Schwarz, in response to supervisors’ questions that morning.
“And this is an effort by the state to try to remedy that a little bit in these four little programs. It’s not even enough money to support them in their entirety. But it’s a beginning. And again, this is all mandated work.”
Schwarz told supervisors at the speaker podium that the money was requisite – that without approval that morning, there would be no state assistance to fund 25 full-time employees to handle state-mandated work.
And the work would have to continue, meaning the money might instead come from the county’s taxpayer general fund.
“This is work the county has to do. The county does that work through my office because that’s where the expertise lies in the area of criminal defense,” Schwarz said. “Regardless of whether the county accepts the grant funding or not, the county is on the hook to provide these services.”
Supervisor Katrina Foley said that by shutting off the state grant, Spitzer was effectively advocating for his own budget to take a hit.
“That actually goes against your argument, Mr. DA, because you’re taking away funds from the very source that you want us to provide additional funds to your department through. So why would we do that?” Foley said.
“To make that decision right here right now and impact the county general fund, which in turn may impact your department, Mr. DA, as well as to impact the public defender’s office and maybe other departments does not seem to be very fiscally prudent.”
Supervisor Andrew Do rejected the notion of an “imbalance” between the two justice offices.
“We’re not comparing apples to apples there. There are many more functions that the DA office is responsible for, that are not even within the purview of the public defender’s office,” he said during the discussion.
He continued: “When cases make it to court and actually appear before the court, and when the public defender’s office is appointed, those are only a fraction of the work that is done in the investigative stage, in the reviewing pre-filing phase … special prosecution … Public Integrity unit … community outreach and education.”
Supervisor Don Wagner also pointed out the Maniscalco case as problematic, but said that the county was still required to fund these services under state law.
“I do think it’s incorrect, that the notion that Mr. Schwarz has a number of (attorneys) whose job is to create more work. Their job is to follow the statutes good or bad, and try to get relief that would be under those statutes, good or bad, available to these defendants,” Wagner said.
“I don’t see that as creating more work.”
Even Spitzer found himself publicly questioning how the county could turn down money.
“I’ve never voted against accepting grant money. My point was to draw caution to this item,” Spitzer said. “We have to go back and try to recreate convictions in a post-conviction environment. That is difficult.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified OC Public Defender Martin Schwarz as Matt Schwartz. We regret the error.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.
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