Justice gridlock: Fresno County public defenders overloaded

National organizations are voicing concerns about justice in Fresno County because of an overworked public defender's office.
October 25, 2013 3:27:52 PM PDT
National organizations are voicing concerns about justice in Fresno County because of an overworked public defender's office. They're the last line of defense for the county's accused criminals with limited money. But that line is running thin as public defenders struggle with huge caseloads.

Each one of those individual attorneys has 400 cases at a time," said public defender DJ Brickey, referring to the misdemeanor team at the office. "And that's the national standard for a year."

Misdemeanor attorneys are handling nearly 2,000 cases a year; felony attorneys as many as 600. That's four times the recommended caseload set by the American Bar Association. Legal analysts say it's unimaginable and the net result is slow justice or no justice.

"If you have an overloaded law firm that's trying to do the best it can, you have mistakes being made," said legal analyst Ralph Torres, who spent 22 years at the public defender's office before starting a private practice.

The problem may start in the courtroom, but it trickles down to the jail, where about 70 percent of inmates are just waiting for their cases to be resolved. Murder cases can take years to get to trial, while victims' families wait for justice. Jerry White's took six years, for example. And even misdemeanor cases can drag on for more than a year.

"It's at a gridlock and when you see this overcrowding and people being released who need to be in custody until their case is resolved, you not only have an injustice, but you run the risk of greater crime," said public defender Scott Baly.

Fresno County supervisors just agreed on a plan to expand the jail, and next on their agenda may be the other end of the justice system.

"We're working with the courts and the state right now to add one or two more courtrooms in Fresno County," said county supervisor Henry Perea.

But the courtrooms will be useless without attorneys to handle cases. And as of now, there's no plan to open the county's coffers to hire new lawyers.


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