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A year and a half after creating a program to reduce the money spent on hiring private defense attorneys in conflict-of-interest cases, Alameda County is again finding those costs on the rise. Touted as a cost-saving tool, the county’s alternate defender division is also losing one of the five attorneys who juggle hundreds of so-called conflict cases ranging from felony drug possession to death penalty cases. And that’s putting more pressure on the four who remain. Public Defender Diane Bellas, who created the division in December 2003 to save money during a period of county belt-tightening, continued to stand by the program on Tuesday and said it worked “extremely well.” But she also said it was too early to tell what its impact has been because the program has not been studied extensively. “So much depends on the nature of the case and the preparation that goes into the case,” Bellas said. “A simple possession felony would not be weighted in the same way that a death penalty case would be weighted.” According to budget figures, Alameda County spent nearly $5.8 million contracting out conflict cases to private attorneys in fiscal year 2003-04. That figure dropped to $5.2 million the following fiscal year, after the alternate defender division was born. But those costs are projected to climb back to $5.6 million this year, according to the county’s current proposed budget. Bellas said she has no immediate plans to replace Susan Sawyer, an assistant public defender in the division who is retiring this week. Although the alternate defender division remains part of the public defender’s office, it has separate offices, attorneys, investigators and staff. J. Clifton Taylor, who supervises the program, said remaining attorneys will divvy up Sawyer’s caseload but will not take new cases for the immediate future. Alameda County’s division has been the source of longstanding controversy among private defense attorneys who rely on the thousands of felony cases — and their income — through the Alameda County Bar Association’s conflicts panel. “There’s still a lot of grumbling about that happening, but what can we do?” said James Giller, who runs the conflicts panel. During fiscal year 2004-05, the county kept 498 conflict cases and gave more than 7,000 to the bar’s conflicts group. Because the PD program handles only felony cases in the northern part of the county, Giller said his group spreads them out so attorneys to the north don’t feel the brunt of the impact. Criminal defense attorney Daniel Horowitz said the division most hurts young attorneys who are more willing to take the cases from the county that larger firms won’t take. “You just cut the legs out from these kinds of people,” Horowitz said. “That’s one big problem.” But Horowitz said he understood the motive behind the proposal. “We believe [Bellas] was pressured to [implement the division] and her heart is in the right place,” he said. But Horowitz also suspects the county keeps smaller cases that cost less to defend “so their budget looks good.” Taylor refuted that characterization, saying the division handles a variety of cases, including murder and death penalty cases. Taylor said he isn’t told how cases are divided between the county and the bar group, and Bellas could not be reached for comment on the issue late Tuesday. Still, some private attorneys wonder how much the county’s program actually saves taxpayers. “I don’t know whether it’s doing any good as far as the public defender’s office is concerned � or whether it’s solved their problems or not,” Giller said. “I doubt it.”

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