Home World DA, public defender lament proposed cuts

DA, public defender lament proposed cuts


SAN JOSE — Santa Clara County’s district attorney and chief public defender are engaging in a seldom-seen display of unity, pushing back against proposed budget cuts to their offices that they say will significantly hamper public safety and due process in the region.

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen leaves the Hall of Justice in San Jose, Calif., Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023, after an arraignment hearing was continued against Derek Vaughn Rayo, 27, and Kelly Gene Richardson, 28, who are facing murder charges in the fentanyl death of their 18-month-old daughter, Winter Rayo in August. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen stands outside the the Hall of Justice in San Jose, Calif., Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group file photo) 

Neither District Attorney Jeff Rosen nor Public Defender Molly O’Neal have made much public noise over the years about their county funding, but both are vocally objecting to what could amount a loss of more than 10% of their budgets.

The cuts are painful but necessary to close a $251 million deficit in the county’s $12.4 billion budget for the 2024-2025 fiscal year, according to county administrators.

But Rosen and O’Neal say the proposed reductions — which were being workshopped over the past week in public hearings before the county Board of Supervisors — would significantly diminish prosecution of violent crime along with essential defense counsel for poor residents.

“These cuts are draconian. These are not the fat, it’s the bone,” Rosen said in an interview this week. He doubled down on that sentiment at a budget workshop hearing Wednesday, calling the suggested downsizing “dangerous, unfair and unnecessary.”

O’Neal said her office has long been a tight fiscal operation that can’t afford to lose the 30 attorneys who could be laid off to meet a $9 million reduction proposal.

“You don’t want indigent clients to have lawyers who don’t have enough time to fully investigate their case and provide zealous representation,” she said in an interview. “It’s a public safety issue, and should be a concern to everyone.”

Santa Clara County Public Defender Molly O'Neal speaks at the No Recall campaign rally in support of Judge Aaron Persky in front of the Santa Clara County Government Center in San Jose, California on Wednesday, May 30, 2018. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)
Santa Clara County Public Defender Molly O’Neal speaks at a rally in San Jose on Wednesday, May 30, 2018. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group file photo) 

Rosen contended that losing 20 criminal investigators, as suggested by the county to help achieve between $15 million and $17 million in savings, would severely impact his office’s capacity to take on rape, domestic violence and child molestation cases, which account for the majority of violent crimes prosecuted in the county.

Thirty-six of the office’s 98 investigators are funded by grants tied to specific enforcement, such as retail theft. That means the 20 employees on the fiscal chopping block would come only from the remaining 62 investigators who are paid from the county’s general fund. Rosen said that would hamper regional task forces that his office either leads or heavily supports, including teams that address gun violence, the fentanyl epidemic and human trafficking.

“If these draconian cuts are not restored, there will be more criminals on our streets and more good people victimized by them,” Rosen said. “Period.”

He also panned the county’s contention that local law enforcement can pick up the slack. The Santa Clara County Police Chiefs Association backed Rosen in a letter to the board stating that if DA investigators are eliminated per the current proposed budget, they “must assume that the work will not get done, and public safety will suffer.”

Rosen also took issue with how since he was elected in 2010, his office has grown modestly in the interceding years yet is slated to absorb a third of the layoffs outlined the current budget proposal. He has proposed about $11 million in belt tightening, and suggested the county look elsewhere in its budget for the rest. He took particular aim at the county’s half-billion-dollar commitment to its healthcare and hospital system.

“To me the places to cut are the places that have grown exponentially, not the parts of the budget that remained stable,” he said.

Santa Clara County Executive James Williams sits in the board chambers in December 2023. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group file photo) 

In a response letter, County Executive James Williams refuted Rosen’s characterization, arguing that by zooming out 30 years, the DA’s office has actually experienced the most growth of any county public-safety agency. Williams called the district attorney’s approach “problematic” at Wednesday’s hearing, and in his letter criticized Rosen’s recent hiring of 10 investigator despite signals from the county dating back to last fall that tough budget times were ahead.

“This is fiscal reality,” Williams said Wednesday, adding that any proposed cuts are “not a reflection of the value of the services.”

Williams also sparred with Rosen over the county’s stance that even with the eliminated investigator positions — and plans to absorb some or all of the employees into the sheriff’s office — its investigator-to-prosecutor ratio would still be in line with other comparably sized DA offices.

Oddly enough, that led to a rare point of agreement between the two, in their assessment that one of the reasons the DA has heavily staffed its investigations bureau is to offset the relatively small officer-to-population ratios in the county’s largest city, San Jose, and other South Bay cities.

But Williams indicated in his letter, and on Wednesday, this is not sustainable given the coming year’s deficit and “a few more years of challenging budget cycles.”

“In these difficult budget times, the County General Fund cannot continue to pick up that burden,” Williams wrote.

Over at the public defender’s office, O’Neal lamented having to plan significant layoffs to reach the $9 million reduction goal, only to see that pain compounded by a county proposal to eliminate or freeze $3.5 million worth of unfilled positions. She said that threatens community outreach and programs aimed at reducing unnecessary jail stays and vetting prosecutions and convictions for inequity and racial bias.

That would also include the loss of three investigator positions she said are vital to providing her agency’s clients — some 85% of the county’s criminal defendants — robust defense while operating with less than half the budget and staffing as the DA’s office.

“Nearly all of our clients come from communities of color, have mental health issues, have housing issues,” O’Neal said. We solve not only their criminal case but those factors as well, which makes the community safer. But we can’t do it if we’re not adequately resourced.”

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