Public Defender to Decline Clients Due to Case Overload and Inadequate Staffing

San Francisco, CA – The City’s refusal to provide cost-effective legal representation to indigent criminal defendants will force the Public Defender’s Office to turn away select homicide and other serious cases, as of February 1, 2009.

The Public Defender’s action comes in response to the denial of City funding for two vacant paralegal positions. The cost to replace the two paralegal positions for the remainder of the fiscal year is $49,580. According Public Defender Adachi, the financially strapped City could spend over $1 million in private legal fees if the Office withdraws from homicide and other major cases.

“The City’s decision to deny critical support to public defenders in major cases is penny wise but a pound foolish,” said Public Defender Adachi. “Currently, we have 14 attorneys handling two to three murder cases each, in addition to a full caseload. Without paralegal support, they cannot continue to effectively represent clients in these cases.” Adachi noted that his office is handling 35 homicide cases, a 33% increase from last year, and has experienced an overall 10% increase in felony filings.

Deputy public defenders carry an average annual caseload of 301 felony cases and 585 misdemeanor cases. Paralegals ease the caseload burden by conducting all trial preparation, preparing subpoenas, exhibits and records, tracking records and assisting felony and misdemeanor attorneys in court.

The Public Defender will review cases on a daily basis and declare the office unavailable in cases where there is insufficient paralegal support for the attorney. The rejected cases include cases currently handled by the office and an undetermined number of new homicide and serious cases. Rejected cases will be referred to the private bar at a cost of $85-$120 an hour, a rate set by the court. Comparatively, deputy public defenders earn an hourly rate of $45-$80 and are not paid overtime.

On January 21, 2009, Public Defender Jeff Adachi appeared before the Budget and Finance Committee of the Board of Supervisors to request approval of two paralegal positions. The Board voted to table the item and did not approve the request. The Mayor’s office had previously rejected Public Defender Adachi’s request.

The mission of the Public Defender’s office is to provide vigorous, effective, competent and ethical legal representation to persons who are accused of crime and cannot afford to hire an attorney. Established in 1921, the San Francisco Public Defender has a long, proud history of providing top-notch representation to its clients, and championing programs that help people turn their lives around.

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