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A campaign by Public Defender Jeff Adachi to limit public defenders’ workloads got a boost of support Friday from the San Francisco controller’s office. A Friday memo from the controller’s city projects division doesn’t go so far as to back the specific number of new hires Adachi pitched in a recent strategic plan — at least 18 attorneys, 25 paralegals and 10 investigators over the next three years. But it does say the PD’s office should add more positions in all three categories and develop caseload standards. Both are goals that Adachi has promoted since taking office in January. Some of the recommendations, which all touch on the delivery and cost of indigent defense, were directed at the superior court and the private bar, as well. But it’s unclear whether city officials will follow through on the report’s recommendations to add staff when they are wrestling with a $350 million deficit. “It’s our hope that the controller’s recommendations will be afforded great weight with the mayor and the Board of Supervisors,” when they make budget decisions, Adachi said. It was at his request that the city projects division examined how cases are managed, including when a public defender declares a conflict and a private attorney from the conflicts panel is appointed. A spokesperson for Mayor Willie Brown could not be reached Friday afternoon, but Peg Stevenson, director of the city projects division, said city officials face a tough dilemma. “It’s clear by the numbers that this function is understaffed,” she said of the PD’s office. “At the same time, the city’s budget crisis is severe.” Anticipating that discussion, Adachi argues that by spending additional money on staff for the PD’s office, the city can save even more by using private attorneys from the conflicts panel less often. That’s “certainly everyone’s hope,” said Stevenson, echoing Adachi’s reasoning in general terms. “It’s cheaper to do the cases in the public defender’s office than in the private bar.” The memo states that the conflicts panel often requires supplemental funding at the end of a fiscal year, and blames the “budgetary control issue” on lack of controls at both the PD’s office and the superior court. Among the controller’s suggestions are to more closely track the reasons that conflicts are being declared by reinstating a practice in which attorneys submit written explanations to the PD for each case. Adachi said he intends to do that to find out why conflicts have been declared more often recently and to put together a written policy for when conflicts should be declared. Stevenson called the office’s current ratio of one paralegal to 82 attorneys “particularly egregious.” Her division’s report cites two other PD offices in California, one in Colorado and one in Indiana as comparisons, with paralegal-to-attorney ratios ranging from 1-to-3.6 to 1-to-29. Among its recommendations outside the PD’s office, the controller’s division suggests starting a pilot program to collect a $25 registration fee from publicly represented defendants, as some other jurisdictions do, estimating that it could bring in annual revenues of $75,000 to $150,000. The superior court bench hasn’t come down on the idea one way or another yet, said court CEO Gordon Park-Li. He said it raises both philosophical and logistical questions. The controller’s division readily acknowledges in its memo that it may cost the city more than the revenues just to collect the fees.

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