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In an effort to slash the millions Alameda County spends each year on private criminal defense lawyers, Public Defender Diane Bellas plans to set up a new division to handle felony cases when her office has a conflict of interest. “The bleak economic situation in the state and our county has prompted me to consider operational changes within the department that will not only benefit the county but the department as well,” Bellas said in an e-mail statement. On Jan. 5, a five-attorney Alternate Defender Division will open for business in the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland. The office will take on Oakland felony cases — including death penalty cases — that the public defender’s office usually farms out to private attorneys because of conflicts of interest. The new autonomous division will have its own investigators, clerical staff, supervising attorney and other safeguards that will help erect an “ethical wall” between it and the rest of the public defender’s office, Bellas explained in the e-mail. The Alternate Defender Division will be headed by J. Clifton Taylor, an assistant public defender who now supervises mental health cases. The other attorneys on the staff will be Assistant Public Defenders Ralph Crofton, Raymond Keller, Susan Sawyer and Mark Smallen. They will be able to handle Oakland conflict cases — created when more than one indigent defendant is charged with a crime — that would otherwise be delegated to a program run by the Alameda County Bar Association. The county paid private attorneys affiliated with the bar’s conflicts panel roughly $4 million last year, said James Giller, an Oakland criminal defense attorney who heads the program. In addition to attorneys fees, the county also pays the bar association $235,000 annually for administrative costs associated with the conflicts program. Bellas’ decision was triggered, at least in part, by County Administrator Susan Muranishi’s effort to shave more money from the county budget. The state’s budget turmoil means that it’s unclear whether the county will continue to receive $65 million in vehicle license fees and other state funds. A lot of that money is used to pay for the sheriff, public defender and district attorney’s offices, said county spokeswoman Deloris Roach. Muranishi asked department heads to tell her how they could cut as much as 20 percent from their budgets. Those proposals were due Dec. 1, Roach said. Bellas said it was unclear how much money would be saved by setting up the Alternate Defender Division. Once the new division is in place, Alameda County will join Bay Area counties such as Contra Costa and Santa Clara, which have established alternate defender offices to handle most conflict cases. Contra Costa County has saved $1 million a year since it established an 18-attorney alternate defender office, said Contra Costa County Public Defender David Coleman. Coleman administers both the public defender and the alternate defender office, but a supervising attorney oversees day-to-day legal strategy at the alternate defender’s office. The Contra Costa office also maintains separate files and its own staff, Coleman said. If the Alameda Alternate Defender Division expands to handle the bulk of the county’s conflict cases, it may be only a matter of time before the PD won’t need the bar program. Many panel attorneys rely on the bar program for income, and Giller noted that panel attorneys fees are among the lowest in the state. “Right now, everyone is concerned because we don’t know what it means,” said Giller. Bellas said in her e-mail that given the staffing in the PD’s office, it’s likely “a good number” of felony cases will continue to flow to the bar. Eight years ago, the bar association persuaded county leaders to reject a proposal to set up a separate public defender’s office to take up conflict cases, Giller said. He was unsure if the bar association would support the public defender’s new effort. In general, Giller says, the private attorneys on the conflicts panel have a close relationship with the PD’s office. “We feel that we are all in this together,” he said. “We are proud that this county has one of the best public defender’s offices in the state. We work with them. We don’t fight them.”

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