The ACLU claims that Fresno County’s public defense system is unable to meet the basic legal needs of residents.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, and the law firm Paul Hastings LLP filed a lawsuit against Fresno County and the state of California, seeking an overhaul of the county’s deficient public defense system.
They claim that public defenders are not receiving the resources necessary to represent their clients, forcing thousands of Fresno County residents to navigate the criminal justice system without the adequate legal representation guaranteed by the Constitution.
“Getting a fair trial should not depend on how much money you have in the bank,” said Novella Coleman, Staff Attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “But in Fresno County, if you can’t pay for a private attorney, you must rely on a public defense system unequipped to meet even basic legal needs.”
An Understaffed and Overworked Public Defense Office
The ACLU cites these main points in their complaint against Fresno County:
- With fewer than 100 people on staff, the Fresno County Public Defender’s Office is unable to keep up with their annual load of 42,000 cases.
- The American Bar Association and the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommends caseload caps at 150 felony cases or 400 misdemeanor cases per full time attorney. The 60 public defenders on Fresno’s staff, however, often carry caseloads of more than four times that amount.
- The county’s public defenders office has high turnover rates — 50 attorneys quit between 2010 and 2014 — This leads to a multitude of inexperienced new hires.
- Of those arrested in Fresno, approximately 70% are minorities. The ACLU claims that immigrants are often instructed to plead guilty without being told how it might affect their immigration status, even though the U.S. Supreme Court held in 2010 that this violates the Constitution.
One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Peter Yepez, states that he did not see a public defender until he had already spent nearly a month in jail. Over the course of a year between his arraignment and sentencing, he had nine different public defenders, some of whom told him they did not have time to work on his case and advised him to plead guilty – despite strong evidence that he was innocent.
To view the full complaint and read more about the case visit: