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May 10-16, 2006

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News Briefs

By Patricia Lynn Henley


Poor folks accused of crimes in Marin County don't get a public defender until after a crucial first court appearance, according to "Defenseless at Arraignment: Lady Justice Lagging in Marin," a recent report by the Marin County Civil Grand Jury. "Fundamental fairness may be compromised," the report contends. Sonoma County provides public defenders at both misdemeanor and felony arraignments; Napa County does so only for felonies. An arraignment is a highly formal session when the criminal charges are read and defendants' constitutional rights are explained. Important decisions at this hearing include setting bail or releasing defendants on their own recognizance, and issuing court orders that can curtail a defendant's legal rights and interests. A deputy district attorney represents the state; generally people who can afford an attorney have one present. Almost no misdemeanor cases are settled at arraignment in Marin County Superior Court, compared with up to 80 percent in counties where defense counsel is provided at arraignment. In this year's budget, the Marin County public defender asked for but did not receive $56,000 to add arraignment services. Marin's public defender office gets $6 million this fiscal year; the district attorney receives $14.5 million, which includes $3.2 million for a technology-only grant. Napa County spends $2.8 million on public defenders and $6.5 million for district attorneys; Sonoma County's figures are $7.1 million for public defenders and $16.6 million for district attorneys.

Viral Blues

The same bug that causes outbreaks on cruise ships is wrecking havoc in Sonoma County's long-term-care facilities. There was one death in April, and since March, more than 285 residents and staff members have fallen sick in nine nursing homes, says Leigh Hall, deputy public health officer. Several new cases were reported over the May 5 weekend. The culprit is novovirus, which hits quickly, causing nausea, vomiting and diarrhea for a day or two. It is commonly, if inaccurately, referred to as "stomach flu." (True influenza is a respiratory infection.) While novovirus may be inconvenient for most, it can be serious for already frail patients, who may become dehydrated or unable to retain vital medications. "A few days of diarrhea and vomiting may be enough to push someone with existing medical problems over the edge," Hall explains. For legal reasons, the public health department did not release the names of the specific nursing homes reporting outbreaks. Hall suggested that anyone with loved ones in a care facility should check to see if there's an outbreak and what steps are being taken. Visitors to any long-term-care facility should wash their hands before and after calling on a patient. Anyone working at or visiting more than one nursing or retirement home should shower and change clothes before going from one site to another.

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