ACLU urges county, district attorney, to resolve public defender issues

The American Civil Liberties Union, Northern California, urges Lassen County and the district attorney to ensure indigent clients get the appropriate representation when they go to court.

According to the ACLU, the only remaining attorney in the Lassen County Public Defender’s Office will stop representing clients Friday, Dec. 17, and “The ACLU has learned that county officials have not made any provisions for what will happen to people who are currently being represented by the PD’s office, nor what will happen to those in the future who are charged with crimes (and) can’t pay for their own legal defense. Lassen County is required by law to provide indigent defense, but it is failing in its obligation.”

Susan Rios, Lassen County’s District Attorney, said she has not seen the ACLU’s letter due to yesterday’s power outage, and she referred Lassen News to the county for comment.

Lassen County Administrative Officer Richard Egan said he disagreed with the ACLU’s assessment of the situation in Lassen County’s courts.

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Egan acknowledged the county has had problems finding attorneys to work in the public defender’s office, and he said the Lassen County Board of Supervisors may approve a contract for public defender services at its next meeting, Tuesday, Dec. 21. Egan said if the contract is approved, the contractor will begin providing legal services the first of the year.

“We are contemplating some changes in that department, not based on their (ACLU) complaints at all,” Egan said. “We’ve had trouble recruiting and retraining attorneys, not only for the public defender, but in general. So what we’ve decided to do is go to a contract-based system rather than having an in-house county department.”

Egan said it is the court that ensures those charged with crimes receive adequate representation. He said the judges frequently appoint private attorneys if there is a conflict in the public defender’s office or if the public defender is unable to represent a defendant.

“They’ve been doing that all along,” Egan said. “Hopefully, this (contract) will alleviate some of that. There’s just a real shortage of legal talent in the community. It’s been a challenge, no doubt about it. We’ve struggled to provide that. There are safeguards in place to make sure everyone is properly represented, and those begin and end at the court. If the court felt people were not getting an adequate defense, the court would take action.”

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Egan said the county has heard various reasons why some attorneys don’t want to practice here, and those reasons have to do with the court itself.

“If attorneys have the option to practice in the Lassen County court versus some of the neighboring courts, they would prefer to go there … that’s one of the things we’ve heard.”

 

ACLU letter to district attorney

The ACLU sent a Tuesday, Dec. 14 electronic letter to Rios “regarding the breakdown in the provision of counsel to indigent people accused of crimes in Lassen County. Through California Public Records Act requests, we have obtained records that paint a disturbing picture of the state of indigent defense in Lassen (County).”

The ACLU reminded Rios she has “an obligation to ensure the rights of defendants are being upheld throughout the criminal process, not only to see that justice is done in each case, but also to safeguard the integrity and legality of any resulting conviction.”

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The ACLU alleges Rios can take steps to reduce the burden on the public defender’s office and the court.

While the ACLU acknowledged the number of cases filed by the district attorney has remained consistent over the years, between January 2020 and September 2021, 90 percent of cases filed by the DA required the “appointment of counsel due to the accused’s inability to pay for their own defense.”

The ACLU called on Rios to “reassess the merits of the criminal prosecution of non-violent low-level offenses that can be effectively diverted from the criminal legal system.”

“For example,” the ACLU wrote, “during the time period covered by the Public Records Act requests, your office filed 326 criminal cases for ‘driving without a valid driver’s license’ or ‘driving when privilege suspended or revoked.’ These cases accounted for over 17 percent of all new criminal filings during this period. Yet, they essentially allege traffic violations that could be addressed by non-criminal enforcement. Prosecuting this type of conduct taxes scarce public resources, with undeniable consequences to those deprived of their right to the effective assistance of counsel, and with no corresponding benefit to society … we strongly urge you to cease filing all such low-level cases, maximize the use of diversion and examine other areas where pre-filing diversion or dismissal of charges may be appropriate.”

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ACLU letter to county

The ACLU also sent a Tuesday, Dec. 14 electronic letter to Egan and the members of the Lassen County Board of Supervisors alleging, “Over the last year, the Lassen Public Defender’s office has effectively collapsed under the pressures of dwindling staff and unmanageable caseloads.”

According to the ACLU, Lassen County is failing to protect a citizen’s constitutional right to an effective defense, “a fundamental safeguard of liberty.”

According to the ACLU, “This responsibility – to provide the effective assistance of counsel –reflects the far-reaching consequences of a criminal charge or conviction, which include not just incarceration and financial penalties, but also the possibility of immigration consequences, permanent barriers to employment and (the) loss of liberties such as the right to bear arms.”

Despite the shortage of attorneys in the public defender’s office, the ACLU reports, “The district attorney continued to file new cases and the superior court continued to refer these cases to the public defender’s office, resulting in the office repeatedly declaring a ‘conflict’ because the overwhelming demands of existing clients and cases rendered the two remaining attorneys unable to provide adequate representation to new ones,” forcing the one attorney left in the office to represent more than 200 clients at one time.

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The ACLU also commented on the number of plea bargains in Lassen County.

“For instance, jury trials are a bedrock of our system of justice, necessary to ensure transparency and accuracy of results,” the ACLU wrote. “A system that relies too heavily on plea bargaining – often considered the most expedient way of disposing of criminal cases – risks sweeping up the innocent and the overcharged who may choose to plead rather than await or risk trial with an attorney who does not have the time or resources to adequately defend them in Lassen County. The public defender’s office represented clients in no more than two trials in the last two years, notwithstanding the hundreds of case appointments they accepted.”

 

ACLU recommendations

The ACLU recommends the county provide parity in funding for the district attorney’s office and the public defender’s office.

It pointed out the district attorney earns $30,000 more per year than the public defender, and the district attorney office’s budget of $1.2 million per year is double the recommended public defender’s budget. The public defender’s office also has “no staff investigators and far fewer support positions.”

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In addition, the ACLU alleges the county has not taken advantage of funds available for the defense of indigent individuals.

“Last year, the state awarded $274,000 in grant money for Lassen County under its Indigent Defense Grant Program,” according to the ACLU. “Yet the county has not spent $1 of these funds. Similarly, there is state grant funding available under the Public Defense Pilot Program (SB 129), but the county has not taken steps to secure this funding before the January 2022 deadline.

“This choice to forgo existing state resources for indigent defense is incomprehensible, and the lack of adequate and equitable resources for indigent defenses raises serious constitutional concerns. We urge Lassen County to utilize existing state resources moving forward, and to provide parity in salaries and access to investigative and administrative support in response to the current indigent defense crisis.”

The ACLU said the county “must investigate and adopt reasonable caseload standards, accounting for the severity of the charges in cases to which attorneys are appointed, the amount of time required for transportation and coverage of court calendars, and any additional resources available for investigative and administrative support.

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“In sum, the provision of indigent defense in Lassen County is at a critical juncture, and a significant reassessment of how the county allocates its resources is needed to prevent continuing constitutional violations. The county must take action to ensure meaningful indigent defense services and create conditions under which its criminal legal system can operate fairly and accurately.”