Tuesday, August 11, 2009 · by lvillegas
On Monday, August 3, the Public Defender’s office began refusing new cases at the Community Justice Center. This decision was made because our office does not have sufficient attorney staff to handle these cases.
During the planning stages of the CJC, the Mayor’s Office promised the Public Defender’s office two attorneys to staff the court. Two weeks before the court was scheduled to open, we were told that we would not receive additional staff for the CJC. As a result, I began to staff the court, along with Simin Shamji, a manager from my office. However, as the caseload grew, we were both forced to neglect our other responsibilities. I decided that it was no longer feasible for me and this manager to continue to staff the CJC.
On Thursday, August 6, the Superior Court ruled on our office’s motion to withdraw from representing clients at the CJC. We calendared 178 cases, which represent all of our CJC clients. At the hearing, we established that we have no choice but to withdraw from cases because: 1) our attorneys’ current caseloads are 50% over the maximum caseloads permitted by the American Bar Association, therefore we cannot absorb the CJC cases into our existing staff; 2) withdrawing from CJC cases would not harm clients; and 3) it is impractical to have our attorneys staff both the CJC and the Hall of Justice.
The Court granted our motion as to the bulk of the cases, approximately 150-160 cases. The court ruled that we would retain cases in which we have already provided substantial representation to the client. This amounts to about 20-30 cases. The court allowed us one week to return to demonstrate whether we should be relieved in these cases, as well.
The Indigent Defense Panel administrator sent an email asking if conflicts panel attorneys would be willing to provide pro bono representation at the CJC “as a way to demonstrate to the Board of Supervisors that the panel is willing to assist the City with the current budget crisis.” The email also stated that “representation should take about 3 appearances to resolve the case and then no appearance will be needed during monitoring unless the attorney is notified by the court.” In response to this request, I sent an email expressing my concerns (read the text of this email here).
I believe that the Public Defender’s office has successfully set the standard of practice at the CJC. When we began staffing the CJC, most of the cases that were assigned to the court were cases that would have never been prosecuted at the Hall of Justice. For the most part, this practice has stopped. We made sure that clients who appeared to answer charges at the CJC received a dismissal of their case before being offered services. It was important to ensure that clients, who would not otherwise have been charged with a crime, did not become defendants by virtue of having their cases heard at the CJC.
We adamantly insisted that the legal outcomes at the CJC were better than the outcomes at the Hall of Justice. This is because persons who participate in the CJC are investing time and effort into turning their lives around, and therefore should receive a better legal outcome, not a worse one.
Additionally, we worked to ensure that when a client was offered services at the CJC, that those services were “real” services and that the service provider, like the client, was held accountable for the outcome. It is a defender’s responsibility to ensure that the client receives the benefit of the bargain when it comes to services offered through CJC.
Finally, we insisted that the constitutional rights of our clients were respected and enforced. We carefully reviewed each case to determine if there were legal motions that should be brought to assert certain legal rights. We exercised the right to jury trial when the client so desired. We also resisted the notion that clients sent to CJC should be presumed guilty and immediately referred to services, regardless of the merit of the prosecution’s case.
I am hopeful that attorneys who handle the CJC cases in the future insist that the protections of our justice system are applied equally to CJC clients.
I estimate that we will probably be out of all CJC cases by the end of August.