Public defenders fight to save post-conviction relief program amid proposed budget cuts

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Public defenders and prison reform advocates are pushing back against Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposal to cut funding for the Public Defense Pilot Program, which helps eligible incarcerated individuals secure early release from prison.

During a recent State Senate budget subcommittee hearing, Alameda County Chief Public Defender Brendon Woods urged lawmakers to maintain the $50 million in funding for the three-year program’s final year, which was put on the chopping block earlier this year because of a projected $22.5 billion budget shortfall at the state level. Woods pointed out that public defenders across the state already receive significantly less money than prosecutors, and this cut would worsen that imbalance. The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office has a budget of about $92 million compared to the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office, which has a budget of about $57 million.

“If I was able to hire 50 lawyers tomorrow — 50 lawyers — our prosecutor’s budget would still be $24 million more than ours,” Woods said.

The Public Defense Pilot Program is one of the initiatives the state has implemented to reduce its prison population after a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling found the overcrowding in California prisons constituted “cruel and unusual punishment,” a violation of the Eighth Amendment. To comply with the court’s order to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of capacity by 2016, the state reformed sentences, moved low-level nonviolent offenders to county jails, and allowed the early release of some individuals, such as the elderly and those convicted as children or as young adults. The state prison system’s most recent report stated it was at 108% of capacity.

In addition to reducing prison capacity, Glenn Backes, policy consultant to the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, said that providing sufficient funding was crucial to achieving the goals of the recently passed California Racial Justice Act for All. The new law allows incarcerated people to get convictions and judgments in cases involving racial bias overturned, “so that people aren’t in prison, deported or on death row for unlawful convictions,” Backes said.

Established in 2021, the pilot program was designed to address the backlog of work resulting from the reforms and currently serves 34 counties. Alameda and Contra Costa have each received about $2 million and $1.5 million a year, respectively, for their post-conviction relief units, which consist of social workers, attorneys and legal support staff that help defendants navigate the process of being released and reintegrating into society.

In January, Newsom announced budget cuts that included the third year of funding for the pilot program. During a press conference on the budget, Newsom announced that his public safety priority was a $758 million public safety plan that included funding victims’ services, officer wellness and training, and combatting the fentanyl crisis and retail theft. He made no mention of legal services for those who cannot afford an attorney.

Ellen McDonnell, the chief public defender of Contra Costa County, reported that her county’s pilot program had facilitated the release of 36 individuals in the past year. Among them, 41% were facing a life sentence and 59% were Black. She added that the additional funding is needed to assist 300 clients who are dependent upon her office’s services.

Mica Doctoroff, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said that the funding already provided through the pilot program was inadequate to meet the needs of eligible defendants, and further depletion of those funds would only harm already struggling public defense providers.

“We see funding public defense as a racial justice issue, an economic justice issue and an immigrant rights issue,” Doctoroff said. “As California’s budget is a reflection of our values, we hope that these values prevail today and moving forward in the budget process.”

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