Fresno Ruling: California Must Pay for Public Defenders

(ACLU) A Fresno judge has ruled that the state of California is ultimately responsible for ensuring that people who can’t afford to hire their own lawyers are provided with effective counsel.

The ACLU of Northern California’s lawsuit claiming the state and Fresno County are violating defendants’ right to due process, to a speedy trial, and to equal protection under the U.S. and California Constitutions will move forward.

“Fresno’s flawed and underfunded public defense system is in a state of crisis and this ruling confirms the state must take responsibility even though it has delegated responsibility to the county,” ACLU of Northern California staff attorney Novella Coleman said after the ruling. “The county’s public defenders don’t have the resources or time to adequately represent clients. Getting a fair trial shouldn’t depend on how much money you have in the bank.”

For several years, thousands of Fresno County residents have had public defenders in name only, attorneys who are too over-burdened and under-resourced to meet the most basic needs. This has led to unnecessary jail time, lack of adequate case preparation and pressure to plead guilty without anyone hearing the facts of the cases.

These systemic deficiencies in Fresno’s system further add to the unfair racial inequalities that plague our nation’s criminal justice system. In Fresno, the flawed system has had a disproportionate impact on the county’s immigrants, who make up 22 percent of the population. And though people of color make up about 57 percent of Fresno County’s population, they represent over 69 percent of arrests in the county.

“In this time of racial profiling, over-policing and mass incarceration, people of color face one injustice after another,” Coleman said. “The right to an attorney is a bedrock principle of our justice system and shouldn’t depend on the color of your skin or the amount of money in your bank account.”