Sacramento County’s District Attorney and Public Defender Offices, Explained

The D.A. and public defender are at the heart of the Sacramento County justice system.

PUBLISHED NOV 9, 2021 12:14 P.M.
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Sacramento County D.A. Anne Marie Schubert addresses the media.

Sacramento County D.A. Anne Marie Schubert addresses the media.   Sacramento County District Attorney's Office / Wikimedia Commons   Public Domain

In Sacramento County, most people unfortunate enough to find themselves facing criminal accusations will quickly become familiar with two lawyers: the district attorney, and the public defender. That’s the situation, more or less, in every California county, and in counties across the United States. But in recent years, both offices in Sacramento have been hit by controversy centering around the people who hold the top job in each office.

What do the two offices do? On the surface, the answer is pretty simple. The public defender, as the name implies, defends the accused against criminal charges. The district attorney prosecutes them. Defendants who cannot afford attorneys are assigned one from the public defender’s office at their arraignment, which is their first appearance in court. Public defenders represent clients charged with felonies and misdemeanors, as well as juvenile defendants. They also help with a process called expungement, which means clearing charges off a criminal record.

In some cases, the public defender’s office may have a conflict of interest, or may simply suffer from short-staffing. In those instances defendants are assigned lawyers from a whole separate pool of publicly funded attorneys known in Sacramento County as the Conflict Criminal Defenders Office

D.A.’s Budget Outstrips Public Defender’s

Most criminal defendants are unlikely to deal with the D.A. or chief public defender directly. In Sacramento County—with more than 1.5 million residents, the eighth-most populous county in the state—the public defender’s office employs 145 people, more than 100 of them lawyers, including chief P.D. Steven M. Garrett.

District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert presides over a total staff of 426, with a total budget of more than $62.5 million, compared to about $44 million for the public defender. While the budget and staffing numbers appear to show a lack of equity between prosecution and criminal defense, the D.A.’s office also encompasses a number of other programs, including the county crime lab, which is responsible for the forensic science elements of criminal investigations.

The D.A.’s office also oversees the county’s collaborative court system, a network of 12 courts whose purpose is not to lock up criminal defendants, but to help them. The courts serve the needs of alleged offenders who fall into specific categories. For example, the drug court gives nonviolent drug offenders a chance to receive treatment for their substance abuse addictions, rather than be incarcerated.

The Commercial Sexually Exploited Children Court deals with juveniles who have been victims of sex trafficking, while the Veterans Treatment Court focuses on military veterans who suffer from addiction and mental health issues. Other collaborative courts deal with homelessness, driving under the influence, probation violations, and “chronic nuisance” offenders.

In addition, while the D.A.’s office handles all criminal prosecutions, the public defender represents only those defendants who cannot afford to pay for their own lawyers. According to one federal Department of Justice study, that’s about 80 percent of all defendants.

Politics in the Public Defender’s Office

Though an accused offender’s absolute right to a criminal defense attorney was not guaranteed until 1963, with the United States Supreme Court’s Gideon v. Wainwright decision, Sacramento County established its Office of the Public Defender in 1948. For 25 of the office’s 73 years, the job of chief public defender was held by Paulino Duran, who was the longest serving public defender in California. Duran stepped down in 2018, and passed away due to COVID-19 in February of 2021.

Unlike district attorneys, who are elected officials, public defenders are county employees hired by the county executive and board of supervisors. In Sacramento County, the board replaced Duran with Garrett, a veteran of more than 25 years in the public defender’s office, where he headed the Juvenile Division from 2011 to 2014.

But Garrett’s tenure in the top P.D. job has proven a somewhat rocky one. In June of 2021, the Sacramento County Attorney’s Association—the union that represents attorneys in the P.D. and D.A.’s office—took a poll of lawyers and other employees working under Garrett, and found 106 out of 114 respondents giving him a vote of “no confidence.”

A Sacramento Bee story found that the top complaint against Garrett was the rise in always-heavy workloads during his stewardship, with some lawyers in the public defender’s office now juggling 100 cases or more at any given time.

Garrett shrugged off the poll as a political attack, noting that SCAA President Joe Cress, himself a Sacramento public defender with 26 years in the office, was his top competitor for the job three years earlier. Garrett himself selected Cress to handle the defense of the office’s highest-profile client in years, serial killer Joseph DeAngelo, known more popularly as the “Golden State Killer.”

D.A.’s Office Goes Through Upheaval

The Golden State Killer case is also, perhaps not surprisingly, the vehicle that gained Schubert statewide recognition, enough so that in April of 2021, she announced that she won’t seek reelection in 2022 but instead will challenge incumbent Rob Bonta for California attorney general.

Bonta himself was sworn in as AG in April, just a few days before Schubert’s announcement. Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed him to replace Xavier Becerra, who was appointed U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary by President Joe Biden.

Schubert as far back as the 1990s was an early advocate of DNA evidence, the type of evidence that ultimately led to DeAngelo’s capture. She was district attorney when the accused serial killer pleaded guilty to 13 murders and 13 counts of kidnapping and robbery, while also admitting guilt in 62 rapes.

But Schubert, a former Republican who now says she has no party affiliation, has also faced controversy over what has appeared to be her reluctance to prosecute police officers involved in deaths of civilians. According to a report by Capital Public Radio, in 40 such cases since 2015 Schubert has never filed a charge against a police officer.

Schubert, however, has endorsed a Democrat in the race to replace her: 56-year-old Paris Coleman, who would become the county’s first African-American D.A. if he were to win the 2022 election.

Coleman faces opposition from Alana Mathews Arcurio, a former prosecutor who now works as an attorney for the state on climate change policy, and Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Thien Ho, who came to the U.S. as a Vietnamese refugee, and who served as lead prosecutor on the Golden State Killer case.

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