ACLU: Fresno Courts Are Unconstitutional

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Peter Yepez waited in the Fresno County jail for a month before speaking to a public defender after being charged with burglary in 2013.  This delay was just the beginning: Yepez spent over a year being assigned nine different public defenders. Yepez says he was told the attorneys didn’t have time to work on his case.

He was initially accused of domestic burglary, but sometime during all those months prosecutors added additional charges.

Prosecutors alleged that there was a victim present during the burglary although the police report said that nobody was there.

The new allegation was a violent felony that added time to his sentence, but Yepez’ public defender told him to plead guilty. And so he did.

Yepez is a plaintiff in a lawsuit recently filed by the American Civil Liberties Union that intends to expose a deficient public defense system.  The lawsuit, filed against the City of Fresno, the State of California, and Governor Jerry Brown, claims that Fresno is systematically denying thousands of poor citizens the constitutional right to a fair trial, and perpetuating greater racial inequalities in the justice system.

“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.”

According to the ACLU, 100 staff members can’t handle 42,000 cases a year.

From the ACLU:

Because public defenders do not receive the resources necessary to represent their clients, thousands of Fresno County residents are forced to navigate the criminal justice system without the adequate legal representation that is guaranteed by the Constitution.

The American Bar Association and the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommends a cap of 150 felony cases or 400 misdemeanor cases per attorney.

The 60 public defenders in Fresno are assigned four times that amount.

“The presumption of innocence is the keystone of our criminal justice system, and it is profoundly compromised for the most vulnerable defendants when the public defense system is failing,” said Emma Andersson, Staff Attorney at the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “Crushing caseloads and paltry resources have made it impossible for Fresno County public defenders to do their job. The state and the county must step up to their Sixth Amendment responsibility. They must fix the county’s public defender system, so that it can properly serve its critical purpose: providing each client with a rigorous legal defense.”

The county’s public defender office has a high turn over rate —50 public defenders have quit between 2010 and 2014—and new attorneys often lack experience.

70 percent of those arrested in Fresno are minorities. Immigrants are told to plead guilty without being told how it will affect their immigration status, which the supreme court ruled in 2010 violates the constitution.

“Because of racial profiling, people of color are more likely to be targeted for arrest and prosecution,” said Coleman. “The severe underfunding of the public defender’s office, which serves many people of color, is just another manifestation of the racial bias inherent at every stage of our criminal justice system – from the moment of arrest, to charging decisions, to bail determinations, to selection of jury members, and to verdicts and sentencing.”

Jonathan Rapping, a legal defense advocate who founded Gideon’s Promise—an organization that trains and supports public defenders, says “What is happening in Fresno is significant,”.  Rapping explains that although the lawsuit focuses on Fresno, exposing these problems at the county level can have an impact on systemic issues on a larger level. “Theses lawsuits force state systems to examine what they are doing.”

Data from US Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that public defenders have been overworked and underfunded across the nation for years.

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“Lawsuits like this,” Rapping says, “are really bringing to the public consciousness the fact that there are two very different systems of justice—One for people with money and one for people without money. I think that at our core as Americans we recognize that that just isn’t right.”

John Oliver highlights Fresno’s defunct public defender system: