ACLU lawsuit says Fresno County public defenders are overworked

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Fresno County courts are crowded and so is the county jail. One big reason is those charged with crimes can't get through the system because the attorneys in the public defender's office are overwhelmed. Attorney Novella Coleman with the American Civil Liberties Union says instead of paying for legally required defense attorneys, the county has spent money on sheriff's deputies, correctional officers and prosecutors.

Coleman said, "I think one of the key problems here is the board of supervisors are responding to what they perceive as the political climate of Fresno County and of the region."

The ACLU filed a lawsuit in district court alleging the county and the state have violated the constitution by failing to provide indigent defendants with meaningful and effective assistance of counsel. ABC30 Legal Analyst Tony Capozzi says it's a political issue.

"It's not popular, the public is not excited about defense having the funding to defend people who are charged with crimes," said Capozzi. "It's a political question, it may be so severe it may effect someone's constitutional rights but it's going to be a difficult, difficult issue to determine."

Difficult because there are no clear rules as to how many attorneys and staff are required. But under national guidelines Fresno County public defenders have three to four times more cases than they should.

District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp has complained the lack of resources in the public defender's office is clogging the system and making her job tougher. The ACLU now hopes a judge will see the situation is unfair, and force the county and the state, to act.

Coleman added, "An uneven justice system where the prosecution is ultimately dictating the outcomes it's not about fairness it's not about accurately determining if someone is guilty or innocent but just about processing people through the system."

The Fresno County supervisors are not commenting on the lawsuit, which was just filed.

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