Bill Makler (pictured) is helping lead a group of private defense attorneys taking a hard look at changes in the criminal justice system.
Paul Wellman (file)

Amid changes impacting the criminal justice system in the Santa Barbara Superior Court and at the state level, Santa Barbara private defense attorneys formed a new organization to make their case. “We want to have a seat at the table,” said attorney Bill Makler, president of the newly formed Santa Barbara Defenders.

Last fall, Makler and a group of about 30 Santa Barbara private criminal defense attorneys turned an informal practice of talking shop after work into meeting in a formal setting. There has been an uptick in changes to the local criminal justice system, he explained. And he said though the group does not necessarily disagree with Public Defender Tracy Macuga, who was appointed last year, “We in the private bar have a unique perspective.”

Macuga has advocated for arraigning defendants in jail through a video feed because it would cut costs. Now defendants are transported from County Jail on Calle Real to the downtown courthouse to appear in person. Santa Barbara Defenders is “resoundingly opposed” to the video proposal, Makler said, arguing it waters down the human element of a court proceeding. He also expressed concern that South County attorneys will have less access to their clients when the new Northern Branch Jail opens next year.

In addition, the group previously opposed transferring the juvenile court proceedings from the abandoned jail off Hollister Avenue to North County. They claimed it would put an undue strain on South County families with kids in legal trouble. “Core members of our group have for years stridently opposed the court’s seeming tendency to ‘streamline’ juvenile justice in ways that we feel blur the decidedly bright line between the way it and the adult system should operate,” he said. Attorneys Tara Haaland-Ford and Steve Dunkle, two of the group’s leaders, were instrumental in challenging the city’s gang injunction five years ago.

The group also includes attorneys Catherine Swysen, Jeff Chambliss, and Meghan Behrens, among others. It is similar to an old, looser organization — the Santa Barbara Criminal Defense Association — that petered out a number of years ago. Since October they have met monthly and participated in criminal justice stakeholder meetings.


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