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Dudley Moves Quickly to Set New Priorities in DA’s Office

Rising crime rates, caseloads lead to three new administrators, nine new prosecutors and a reorganization

“New” is the word of the day over at the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office on Santa Barbara Street.

With District Attorney Joyce Dudley’s election last month, it was out with the old and in with a host of changes, including the firing of electoral opponent Josh Lynn, a new administrative structure with specialized crime units taking over the building’s fourth floor, and a lot of new blood on its way.

No department has escaped the budget ax wielded by Santa Barbara County officials, but the District Attorney’s Office’s pleas for help in an environment of rising crime rates were heard, and Dudley will be hiring nine new attorneys at the lowest salary level — $68,000 per year — to help manage ever-growing caseloads. To deal with past budget issues, eight senior attorneys took advantage of a retirement incentive but their positions weren’t filled — until now.

The office’s budget presentation reported increases in sex crimes, DUI crimes, murders and attempted murders, and gang-related crimes in the last five to 10 years, said Gordon Auchincloss, the acting chief assistant district attorney who will be the administrator in charge of a new white-collar crime unit.

As crime rates increase, the office’s attorney caseloads have shot up accordingly. In 2009, the office filed nearly 20,000 misdemeanor and felony cases, and the average annual workload for a criminal attorney jumped 30 percent, to 477 cases.

Compared to other counties, that number tops the list, making Santa Barbara County’s perhaps the most case-heavy prosecutors in California, Auchincloss said.

In the last five years, gang crimes have increased 213 percent, sex crimes have increased 28 percent and DUI cases have increased 35 percent. The rate of murders and attempted murders have increased 588 percent since 2000, and Santa Maria’s murder rate is 6 percent higher than Los Angeles’, according to FBI murder statistics from 2008, the most recent tally available.

“The seriousness of the cases exacerbated the fact that we’re carrying these enormous caseloads, because when you get a murder case in, a gang murder case, in terms of your office resources, it’s a black hole,” Auchincloss said.

The positions held previously by Lynn and Dudley — she’ll likely handle a case here and there, but nothing like her previous caseload — and the recently retired Eric Hansen will all be filled.

Since Lynn was an administrator prior to his termination, he was handling one homicide case that will now be handled by his co-counsel.

To replace the retired, the fired and reorganized positions, the office has received at least 270 applications so far, and many of the prospects have years of criminal prosecution experience.

“In essence, what we’re losing is experience,” Auchincloss told Noozhawk. With many experienced, long-standing attorneys being replaced by newcomers, Senior Deputy District Attorney Ron Zonen will organize a new training and mentor program.

Dudley’s new organizational structure tackles three specific crime areas, each headed by a senior deputy district attorney who will also assign cases related to his unit: Auchincloss leads a new white-collar and computer crimes unit, Zonen will handle a vulnerable victims unit and Hilary Dozer is in charge of a gang-related crimes unit. Instead of two administrators, as it will stay for now in the North County division, Dudley chose to have three who are paid less so it evens out.

She’s not restructuring the North County office at this time since she’s spent her law career in Santa Barbara.

“This is the climate that I know the best,” she said. “I can make these kinds of changes quickly.”

While two units are validated by statistical evidence, white-collar crime levels are “more anecdotal.”

Identity theft and cyber crimes have increased as access has expanded, and county-wide issues the unit will deal with include employee embezzlement, child pornography and mortgage, foreclosure and real estate fraud, Dudley said.

White-collar crime is “an area that’s probably underreported and underprosecuted,” Auchincloss said.

The cases are extremely labor intensive and expensive — they often require expert witnesses or forensic accountants — to prosecute, and much of the work has been done by the private sector in the past. If members of the business community and public at large can help the District Attorney’s Office get a solid case, they’ll take over, Auchincloss said.

“They don’t have to worry about unanimous verdicts and beyond reasonable doubt in civil cases,” he said.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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