Budget woes result in CPCS overhaul

Issue January 2012 By Kristin Cantu

The Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) is facing its toughest trial yet. After years of increasing budgets, it must change its ways.

CPCS staff, which represents indigent persons in defense matters, handled 10 percent of the state's case load in the past. The remaining 90 percent was contracted out to private attorneys charging an hourly fee.

For the fiscal 2012 budget, Gov. Deval Patrick's administration wanted that to change. Massachusetts has not been immune to financial woes brought on by a struggling economy, and Patrick proposed turning CPCS into a 100 percent staff-run operation, estimating saving $45 million annually.

"I think we're in a period of unprecedented fiscal crisis," said Anthony Benedetti, CPCS' chief counsel. "There are fewer resources and [the administration] believes it's a way to do the same quality work for a cheaper price."

'When Springfield-based attorney David Hoose met Patrick 20 years ago, he thought "this was a guy that has some understanding that you can't put a price tag on justice." 
Hoose, who took over the private indigent defense in Hampden County when he formed the Hampden County Lawyers for Justice, said Patrick "clearly doesn't" think that way anymore.

In a CommonWealth magazine article, Jay Gonzalez, Massachusetts' secretary of administration and finance and a newly appointed CPCS board member, said "a system that pays private bar advocates by the number of hours they work provides an incentive to take longer to resolve cases, not necessarily to achieve a better result."

"There's been this undertone from the administration ... that everybody is milking the system and is getting fat off the system," Hoose said. "Anyone who does this work as a member of the private bar certainly resents that."

Patrick didn't get the overhaul he was seeking, but CPCS must now take on 25 percent of the caseload, resulting in the hiring of hundreds of attorneys.

"It's quite a dramatic change," said Benedetti. "It has required an enormous number of hours in terms of planning, looking at caseloads and making a determination of how many attorneys we're going to need."

"We've had no one [from the private bar] apply for any of the public defender jobs that I'm aware of … because salaries are really very low," Hoose said. Panel members believe the governor's plan "is inevitably headed to a very bad situation. No one wants to be stuck in a job where you're overworked, underpaid and morale is terrible. I think that's the 
great fear."

CPCS also faces finding enough space for its new employees, a time-consuming process. "Meanwhile, at the same time, everybody is doing their usual job," Benedetti said. "Morale is a challenge. There's just so much more to do and not a lot of resources to do it."

A concern of everybody involved is whether the quality of the representation will diminish.

"There is always the possibility that as attorneys, we take more cases ... become overwhelmed and cannot properly represent each individual client," Benedetti said. "That is something we are going to keep a close watch on."

"All the talk [from Patrick] was on how we are going to save money," Hoose said. "No matter how dedicated or talented full-time public defenders are, [with Patrick's plan] they're going to be underpaid and overworked. Morale and quality of representation is going to suffer."

MBA Chief Operating Officer and Chief Legal Counsel Martin W. Healy, another newly appointed CPCS board member, said he would like to see more private bar advocates apply and take positions with the agency. "The legislation priority for the newly created positions should be given to the women and men that are currently working as bar advocates."

Another change is how CPCS board appointments are made. The 15-member board was once solely appointed by the Supreme Judicial Court. Now board members are chosen by the SJC, the governor, the House and the Senate.

CPCS board members were also previously able to take on cases set aside for the private bar. They can no longer do that, which resulted in certain board members becoming ineligible for reappointment.

Structural changes to any organization can be a challenge and it remains to be seen what effect they'll have.

"It remains to be seen what the effect on our clients will be," Benedetti said. The administration has "done what they've done. We need some time to access the result of this change."