Public Defender: Santa Barbara Could Save Millions by Fixing Justice System’s ‘Culture of Delay’

Santa Barbara County supervisors gathered on three occasions last week for grueling discussions over the county budget. Still reeling from the aftermath of the Thomas Fire and the Montecito mudflows, county officials project service cuts of at least $5 million and the elimination of 11 full-time positions. As part of its discussions, the Board heard from a number of county officials and department heads who shared their ideas on how the county can cut costs. But it was one official whose presentation seemed to really strike a chord.

Public Defender Tracy Macuga told the board that the county is shelling out millions of dollars each year because of a “culture of delay” in the county’s criminal justice system. Five of Macuga’s clients have been sitting in a jail cell for the past 3-5 years awaiting trial. Combined, the costs of their incarcerations have totaled $740,000 per year, excluding any costs for transportation, medical attention, or trial preparation.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Macuga laid out the case for how unnecessary delays by prosecutors and defense attorneys have contributed to the problem. Judges share part of the blame too, she said, because they’re sometimes slow to calendar court cases and/or begin the trials on time.

“This is not a case for finger-pointing,” Macuga said. “We all have had a hand in it.” She called for the creation of a task force to examine the problem.

By the time she was done, it was clear county supervisors were seriously considering it.

“This is one of the best presentations I have ever seen,” said Supervisor Steve Lavagnino. Supervisor Das Williams said Macuga had ‘blown’ his mind. Supervisor Peter Adam called her “a force.”

The guarantee of a speedy trial has been recognized as a fundamental right dating all the way back to English Common Law. Too often, however, logistical barriers make it difficult, if not impossible, to implement. As Macuga notes, this not only places jurisdictions in a moral and ethical quandary, but needlessly wastes taxpayer dollars that could be spent elsewhere.

Read more about Macuga’s presentation and the county’s budget woes at the Santa Barbara Independent