City and County of San Francisco Enters Voluntary Furloughs

Disclosure: I work for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. The views presented below are of my own and not of the office or anyone else for that matter.

Furloughs have now hit me also. The City and County of San Francisco has been facing a $575.6 million deficit in its budget which is now down to ~$400 million. The situation is so bad now that San Francisco can’t even afford to pay all their employee’s salaries to the end of this fiscal year. Given the dire situation, if things continue the way they are, twelve people in our office alone will face immediate lay-offs so that we will have enough money to continue to function and pay our bills. No one is even sure of what will happen next fiscal year and if the lay-offs will continue.

Public Defender, Jeff Adachi, along with Chief Attorney Teresa Caffese are tirelessly (Jeff is even staffing the new Community Justice Center himself) in discussion with the Mayor’s Office and The Board of Supervisors on why our department should be exempted from the mandatory 25% budget reduction ordered by Mayor Gavin Newsom. The argument is that issuing lay-offs in the Public Defender’s office¬† is not a cost savings issue because the cases that our office would have taken on would be farmed out to private attorneys who would bill the City & County at a much higher rate than what it cost to have a Public Defender on the case. Here is another side of the argument: hiring private attorneys would mean cases could potentially be solved quicker and private attorneys would be more willing to take plea deals resulting in the reduced cost of not having to go to trial. The problem with this argument is that according to a 2007 study by Harvard economists (read the NY Times article) is that “lawyers paid by the hour are less qualified and let cases drag on and achieve worst results for their clients, including sentences that average eight months longer.” To me, after reading that article, I don’t understand how the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors believe that this would result in any significant cost savings. Longer sentences means increased costs to pay for more guards, food, medical expenses, and so forth for that additional prisoner. I’m not saying that we should release or reduce prison terms, if a person has committed a crime, they should serve a prison term that is deemed fair and not excessive. But that’s a whole different discussion for a different time.

So how does this budget crisis affect me personally and our office? We were offered a choice and chance to save twelve of our colleagues: take a voluntary 5-day furlough for the months of April, May, and June which amounts to a 10% pay reduction. This will help twelve of our friends/colleagues survive at least until the next fiscal year. The only catch, to save all twelve, the entire office has to opt-in. If only half the office opts-in, then six people will be spared. I gladly do my part. A reduction in pay is better than no pay any day of the week and any little thing we can do to help each other out goes a long way. I liked how our senior Senior Felony Attorney, Stephen Rosen, put it (I don’t remember the word-for-word quote), “I may not know all of you personally, but you all chose to be Public Defenders giving up more lucrative careers to be here and to help out our clients. That is enough for me.”

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