Santa Cruz Public Defender is committed to strengthening the “holistic defense model” – Santa Cruz Sentinel

The Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s Office calls for Lillian Nathanson, left, and Andrew Lopez, far right, to talk with attorney Juan Calzetta as their two-year fellowships come to an end. (Jessica A. York – Santa Cruz Sentinel)

SANTA CRUZ – Roughly two years after launching Santa Cruz County’s first in-house public defender office, Public Defender Heather Rogers has watched as proposed cuts at the state level trickle down locally, even as she and her professional colleagues continue to face an “ ocean of needs” combined with limited resources.

One way the newly created department, led by Rogers, has sought to create large-scale systemic savings along with improved client care is through its mission to provide “holistic defense.”

“What I’m trying to explain is that (the) public defender will never be a source of income because my clients are, by definition, too poor to pay for us,” Rogers said. “We are going to save this community millions of dollars. … If we can solve the root cause problem for one human and keep him/her out of the system or minimize his/her system involvement, that one interaction between (an advocate) and that human pays for my entire department, let alone the cost of our advocates or the cost of our social work team or the cost of our holistic advocates.”

During an interview last week at her May Street office, Rogers compared her early efforts to establish a permanent public defender’s office to launching a startup. The private law firm Biggam Christensen & Minsloff, which previously held the province’s public defense contract for 47 years, came into its own during the area’s brief stint in the 1970s as the “Murder Capital of the World.” In the meantime, she said, the new firm has faced entirely different challenges with its client base and the embrace of a comprehensive legal defense strategy that is still in its infancy nationally.

“A lot of our clients are experiencing homelessness, they’re suffering from mental health issues and substance use disorders, and they’re really in these cycles that are detrimental to their life goals,” Rogers said. “Part of what we do is try to understand what drove people into the system so we can connect them to services that can help them get out. That is new for us, but not new for the world.”

In part, the Attorney General’s Office has implemented its new holistic defense strategy through a two-year contract with New York City-based Partners for Justice. The national nonprofit organization trains and places fully trained non-attorneys, often recent college graduates with legal backgrounds and strengths in writing and communication skills, into public defender offices to help clients with case navigation and comprehensive support . One of those advocates is Andrew Lopez, whose two years with the Santa Cruz office run through June.

Holistic defense, said Emily Galvin Almanza, founder of Partners for Justice, prioritizes clients’ needs by complementing attorneys with adequate resources under the umbrella of the goals of public safety, public health and economic mobility. Often, public defenders already do much of that work invisibly — calling an employer to ask them to negotiate continued employment, help people find housing and more, Galvin Almanza said.

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