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Busy courts in SLO County mean more cash for public defender firm 

The local law firm charged with providing public defender services will see an increase in its multi-million dollar contract with SLO County, thanks to an increase in its workload from the county’s criminal justice system.

The SLO-based Maguire and Ashbaugh law firm will get an additional $300,309 as part of the renewal of its longstanding no-bid contract with the county, bringing the contract’s total to more than $4 million annually over the next four years. The SLO County Board of Supervisors approved the contract unanimously at its June 21 regular meeting.

According to a county staff report, much of that increase will be utilized for additional staff and resources to take on a growing workload of the firm’s cases in SLO County Superior Court, where its public defenders are spending more time taking on lengthier and more complex criminal cases.

According to the report, public defenders experienced an increase in both cases and the number of hours it takes to work those cases. In 2014, despite expecting a 20 to 30 percent drop due to the passage of the state’s sentencing and prison realignment legislation commonly known as Proposition 47, the number of felony cases grew by 6 percent. The total number of felony case hours the firm worked increased by 8 percent, or 1,618 hours, and the average number of hours per felony court appearance also grew by 58 percent, according to the report.

“The increase supports the public defender’s observation that many of the felony cases that they have been representing in the past two years are more complex than in the past, including homicides, vehicular manslaughter, and sexual crimes cases.” the report stated. 

Public defenders also saw a 32 percent decrease in misdemeanor cases. However, the number of hours per misdemeanor case grew by 44 percent. Those numbers were likely the result of the SLO County Superior Court’s decision to reorganize itself in 2014 and create two early disposition courts, the report stated.

An estimated 75 percent of the $300,000-plus of the contract’s increase will go to fund public defender staff at the firm, including a full-time attorney, a part-time investigator, a part-time paralegal, and additional IT support.

Despite the large size of the contract, Attorney Patricia Ashbuagh told the supervisors that she believed her firm provides quality services as the county’s primary public defenders.

“I think we’re a pretty lean, mean team,” she said.

While she didn’t dispute the quality of the firm’s services, 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold raised concerns over the fact that the contract didn’t go to bid when it was renewed several times in the past. 

“That means we will have gone 20 years with this kind of expensive contract without a [request for bids],” Arnold said. 

Arnold moved to include a mandate that the contract go out to bid when it ended in four years, but was shot down on a 3-2 vote.

The supervisor’s vote also renewed contracts with three other law firms that provide various defense services to the county for a grand total of $5.4 million annually. 

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