Santa Clara County eases planned budget cuts for prosecutors and public defenders

SAN JOSE – Santa Clara County is reducing planned budget cuts for the district attorney's office and public defenders after their leaders warned of great impacts on public safety within the South Bay.

In the district's latest budget revision, released last week, officials reversed the elimination of 20 detectives within the district attorney's office and restored all but two positions. In the general public defense department, three detective positions could be restored from a budget draft released in early May.

Even then, each agencies could have to cope with layoffs and staff reductions — totaling cuts within the range of 5 to seven percent of every agency's budget — to assist the county offset its estimated $250 million deficit for the 2024-2025 fiscal 12 months. Yet as of the last update, only one in all the agency's leaders said they felt they’d enough money to sustain the tight budget that may proceed for several years.

Chief Public Defender Molly O'Neal said she was grateful for the positions being restored, but noted that her office continues to be coping with a $3.5 million cut, on top of $3 million in cuts already made through staff reductions and layoffs of greater than a dozen positions, in addition to strict hiring restrictions. She cited flexibility within the prosecutor's budget due to grants and other sources of revenue — equivalent to settlements in consumer cases — that her office doesn’t have.

“We don't have the same flexibility and can only reduce staff, which would have a drastic impact on services,” O'Neal said. “We are very stretched and deeply hope the board can find a way to reduce our negative appropriations to zero so we can continue to provide the excellent holistic service the community deserves.”

District Attorney Jeff Rosen, who warned last month of increased criminality within the region if the investigator cuts go ahead, said his office has enough staff to offer basic services for now – although it is going to likely mean a rise in cases per person for a lot of his employees.

“We started far apart, but we found a solution that would allow us to provide basic but high-quality services,” Rosen said of his office's discussions with the county. “We still had to make a number of painful cuts.”

Those cuts, Rosen said, include 30 positions which can be either vacant or affected by staff retirements. They include prosecutors, support staff and crime analysts. But he also says regional task forces that cope with crimes equivalent to human trafficking and illegal weapons aren’t any longer in jeopardy, amending his earlier warning.

County Executive James Williams praised the “creative thinking” of Rosen’s office, which resulted in savings of over $2.5 million by establishing recent revenue streams for the crime lab and obtaining additional funds from various state funding sources.

“This is an example of the ingenuity we need from the entire organization to ensure we can maintain critical services to our community even during difficult fiscal years,” Williams said in a press release to this news organization. “We are grateful to the many departments across the county organization that stepped up to address the county's budget deficit.”

O'Neal reiterated that the general public defender can’t be as resourceful as Williams described because her budget is sort of entirely dedicated to the positions that represent about 85% of the county's defendants. She said meaning any cuts would have a disproportionate impact on her ability to offer staff for outreach and programs aimed toward reducing excessive jail time and reviewing charges and convictions for unfairness and racial bias.

“We provide holistic care and work to address the root causes that drive people into the criminal justice system in the first place,” O'Neal said. “The racial and equity issues that arise from cuts to public defense should be of great concern to the entire community.”

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