Santa Cruz advocates in the news

As Santa Cruz transforms how it provides public defense, PFJ client advocates play a key role in the movement.

By Jessica York, Santa Cruz Sentinel

SANTA CRUZ — Some two years into the launch of Santa Cruz County’s first in-house public defender’s office, Public Defender Heather Rogers has watched as proposed state-level budget cuts trickle down locally, even while she and her professional peers continue to face an “ocean of need” paired with limited resources.

One way in which the recently forged department, under Rogers’ leadership, has sought to create big-picture systemic savings combined with improved client care is through its mission to offer “holistic defense.”

“What I try to explain is (the) public defender is never going to be a revenue-generator because my clients are, by definition, too poor to pay for us,” Rogers said. “We are going to save this community millions of dollars. … If we can solve the root-cause problem for one human being and keep them out of the system or minimize their system involvement, that single interaction between (a defender advocate) and that human being pays for my entire department, let alone the cost of our advocates or the cost of our social work team or the cost of our holistic defenders.”

During an interview at her May Street office last week, Rogers compared her early efforts to forge a permanent public defender’s office to launching a startup. The private law firm Biggam Christensen & Minsloff, which previously held the county’s public defense contract for 47 years, came into its own during the area’s brief stint in the 1970s as the “Murder Capital of the World.” Meanwhile, the new office, she said, has faced entirely different challenges with its clientele and embrace of a wrap-around legal defense strategy still in its infancy nationwide.

“Many of our clients are experiencing homelessness, they’re suffering from mental health and substance use disorders and they are really in these cycles that are harmful to their life goals,” Rogers said. “Part of what we do is try to understand what drove people into the system so that we can link them to services that will help them get out of it. Which is new to us, but not new to the world.”

In part, the Public Defender’s Office has implemented its new holistic defense strategy with the help of a two-year contract with New York City-based Partners for Justice. The national nonprofit trains and places fully trained non-attorney advocates, often freshly graduated from college with a legal background and strengths in writing and communication skills, into public defender offices to aid clients with case navigation and wraparound support. One such advocate has been Andrew Lopez, whose two years with the Santa Cruz office runs through June.

Holistic defense, said Partners for Justice founder Emily Galvin Almanza, prioritizes clients’ needs by supplementing attorneys with sufficient resources under the umbrella of the goals of public safety, public health and economic mobility. Often public defenders are already doing much of that work invisibly — calling an employer to ask them to negotiate continued employment, helping people find housing and more, Galvin Almanza said.

Not counting early-representation work at the jailhouse, those advocates opened 774 cases for clients locally in the past two years. In the next fiscal year, beginning July 1, Santa Cruz County’s budget proposes the completion of the Partners for Justice contract, transitioning three advocate contractors into three permanent full-time social worker positions or their equivalent, whose services may be largely repaid through Medi-Cal reimbursement. The team will expand to four advocates and five social workers under Director of Holistic Defense Caitlin Becker.

With early representation from someone who may be an advocate, social worker, attorney or the office’s director of holistic defense, the Public Defender’s Office determines the client’s immediate, urgent needs. With a holistic intake often led by advocates, the clients’ housing, employment, dependents, immigration status, mental health/substance use disorder challenges, professional licenses, veteran status and issues related to family court are all considered. Clients were, on average, represented as a more than 5-to-1 ratio of men to women, with more than 35% of all clients reporting having dependents in the past year and a half. Nearly 16% reported they were experiencing homelessness and early 54% were people of color, with Black and Latinx individuals overrepresented compared to the county’s demographics, according to defender’s office statistics.

In the past year and a half that the Public Defender’s Office has been offering early client representation — generally meeting clients at the jailhouse before their first court appearance instead of shackled and standing before the judge — they have provided service for some 1,543 individuals, according to the office’s statistics. In the past fiscal year alone, 132 clients — representing 44% of those represented early — were released at or before their initial arraignment, according to Rogers’ budget presentation to the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors on May 21.

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