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Pity our public defenders. California’s budget woes have public law agencies around the state bracing for big cuts. In Alameda County, officials are threatening 10 percent reductions for prosecutors, probation workers, sheriff’s deputies, and, of course, public defenders. Department heads have promised they won’t let that happen without a fight. But it won’t be a fair one. It’s the same old story: When the politicians actually sit down to trim the budgets, it’s the PDs — at least those outside San Francisco — that will feel the most pain. That’s because county and state prosecutors get to claim they protect the public. In recent years, county and state prosecutors have broadened their appeal even more with civil enforcement actions and other suits that they say actually produce — rather than consume — revenue. Maybe it’s time public defenders took some pages from the prosecution playbook. As we reported a month ago, Attorney General Bill Lockyer helped save some jobs in his office by classifying some lawyers as income generators. Louise Renne doubled the size of the San Francisco city attorney’s office with her pioneering affirmative litigation. Public defenders like Alameda County’s Diane Bellas should do the same. It’s no stretch to say most indigent defendants are in trouble as a direct result of ready access to guns and alcohol. Why can’t the public defender recoup some of its costs by suing the manufacturers and distributors of crime-friendly products? City attorneys and county counsel have been busy suing tobacco and gun companies on behalf of hospitals — why should they reap all the funds? There would also be the psychological bonus of actual court victory, something our public defenders seldom taste despite their hard work and personal commitment. If successful, the PDs wouldn’t have to stop at guns and booze. They could reduce their drunken driving caseload to zero (and pick up hefty fees) by forcing automakers to install breathalyzers in the ignition devices of every vehicle they manufacture. So the public would benefit, too. Parole violations? Just where were those parole officers, anyway! We’re thinking global settlement requiring daily check-ins. And imagine how much better off society would be if ministers and judges, under threat of legal liability, felt compelled to investigate the backgrounds of the couples they marry — before the relationship results in domestic violence. Then there is, of course, the ultimate source of revenue generation for public defenders. Let’s face it, crime doesn’t just happen all by itself. Sure, a lot of the people hauled into court are guilty, but many of them would never be there if it weren’t for the bad acts of the victim. Shouldn’t they bear their fair share of the cost? Sure, it’s a wildly unpopular idea, but most lawyers could easily rationalize it as contributory negligence for criminal law. And the beauty of it is that the PDs have to trash the victim anyway for the criminal case. They could just cut and paste the arguments into the civil brief. You may be thinking that this seems extreme. But it wasn’t that long ago that the idea of city attorneys suing paint makers or AGs earning big fees from power companies was laughable. Yes, it will take creative lawyering, a willingness to play hardball, and a talent for spreading blame as widely as possible. Who could possibly be more up to the task?

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