By Amanda Tripp
A lawsuit accusing the Fresno County Public Defender’s office of providing inadequate defense will continue to move forward; mid-April Judge Mark Snauffer ruled in favor of allowing the case to proceed. The suit, filed in July of last year by the ACLU, the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project & Paul Hastings LLP on behalf of Peter Yepez, accuses both Fresno County and the State of California of underfunding and overloading the Fresno County Public Defender’s office to the point that it causes inadequate defense to the thousands of clients the office serves.
Peter Yepez, a Fresno County Resident, pled no contest to burglary and stolen property charges after having a total of 9 Public Defenders appointed to provide him counsel on his case. Yepez spent almost an entire year in Fresno County Jail before his attorney was able to interview Yepez regarding the case.
Yepez’s attorney, whose duty it was to be representing him and ensuring his rights were not violated in the criminal justice process; didn’t have time for nearly an entire year to sit down with his client and discuss the case. Yepez’s trial became a revolving door of overworked attorneys appointed by the Public Defender’s Office. These Attorney’s had such little time and resources to go around that Yepez was encouraged to take a plea deal even though there was strong evidence of his innocence. Yepez is not unique, his story is like countless others over the years that have passed through Fresno County’s Public Defender’s Office, which has been in need of help for many years.
On any given day the Fresno County Jail population is made up of 70% to 80% of people who have not yet had their cases go to trial, the average spending about a year just waiting for their trial to begin. This is to say that a large majority of the people sitting in Fresno County’s Jail are folks that are to be presumed innocent as that they have not gone to trial to be convicted, yet they are sitting behind bars. The majority of these people are in jail awaiting trial because they cannot afford to post bail to resume their lives.
It is no surprise then that since the majority of those people in the Fresno County Jail cannot afford bail can also not afford to pay for an attorney. This makes for huge caseloads for a severely understaffed Public Defender’s Office. The National Advisory Committee recommends a yearly felony caseload of 150 cases per defense attorney. The Public Defenders in Fresno County take on an average on 612 felony cases each year. If you had a doctor that was trying to take on 4 times as many patients as the national recommendation you would not feel like your health, safety and well-being were in good hands. The people of Fresno County have put justice in hands that are already too full.
With the Public Defenders’ high caseloads, they are not able to meet their client’s right to counsel as it is laid-out in the 6th Amendment. In many cases, clients like Yepez, are encouraged to plead guilty to move things along and save the time and resources that a trial takes. The lack of resources in the Public Defender’s Office not only translates to pressure to plead guilty, it also translates to less time spent with each client, postponement of trials, harsher sentencing and waving of appeal rights.
The Fresno County Public Defender’s Office has caught the attention of the community for many years now. The suit states that these problems have escalated since 2008 when funding was slashed and more than half the staff was laid off. These layoffs included support staff such as legal assistants and investigators. Not only do Public Defenders have to handle more cases but they must take on the job duties previously done by other staff. District Attorney, Lisa Smittcamp, has publically commented on multiple occasions about the lack of resources the Public Defender’s office has available in order carry out their duties. In 2013, the Public Defender’s Union voiced their concerns about their members being overworked and having a lack of resources leading to them jeopardizing their client’s constitutional rights.
In 2014, Chief Public Defender Kenneth Teniguchi was replaced after his staff spoke out about the large caseloads, lack mentorship, and inability to effectively provide counsel to their clients. Teniguchi was replaced with Elizabeth Diaz in hopes that new leadership would restore the confidence of the office. Yet here we are in 2016 hoping that this lawsuit will be the turn around that is long overdue.
When there is such a discrepancy in funding between the Public Defender’s Office and the District Attorney’s office it is hard to make an argument that the hands of justice are balanced, that a defendant’s right to fair and speedy trial are not being compromised. The County of Fresno and the State of California have hired lawyers to make that argument. In the months to come, we will see how this suit fares in court.
Amanda Tripp is a Fresno citizen engaged in criminal justice reform and a member of Community Alliance editorial board. You may contact her at AmandaNTripp@yahoo.com.