ACLU Settlement Agreement Secures Governor’s Commitment to $14 Million in Added Support for Public Defense Systems Throughout California and Agency Expansion

January 10, 2020 2:45 pm

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Northern California along with its other California affiliates, and the law firms Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP and Paul Hastings LLP have settled a lawsuit brought against the State of California and Fresno County. The settlement is a considerable step toward ensuring that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel is upheld throughout all of California’s 58 counties for all accused people, regardless of how much money they have. Additionally, the settlement will ensure that accused people represented by the Fresno County Public Defender’s Office receive constitutionally adequate legal representation.

Under the settlement, Gov. Gavin Newsom has included $4 million dollars in his annual proposed budget for 2020-21 and $3.5 million annually thereafter to expand the mission of the Office of the State Public Defender (OSPD), which currently handles only death penalty appeals. This represents an increase of approximately 28 percent over the agency’s current budget with the goal of promoting more effective representation statewide. The proposed expansion would include broad new authorization for OSPD to provide support, including training and technical assistance for California counties’ provision of trial-level indigent criminal defense in non-capital cases. The proposal also includes $10 million for the Board of State and Community Corrections, in consultation with OSPD, to administer a program to provide grant funding to local public defense systems. This funding will also support the completion of an evaluation to determine the effectiveness of these grants.

“The crisis in California that led to this lawsuit is not an anomaly. Too many public defenders across the country have to juggle hundreds of cases at once, forcing them to cut corners in the investigation, case preparation, and legal research necessary to ensure that every client benefits from the presumption of innocence and the right to counsel,” said Emma Andersson, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “To ensure that everyone’s constitutional rights are protected, we need robust public defense systems throughout the country. Governor Newsom has taken the important step of moving California in the right direction on this crucial issue.”

For decades, no state-level agency in California has provided financial or any other support to counties for trial-level public defense services, leaving these counties to pay for and monitor these constitutionally-required services on their own. This has created huge disparities in public defense services, with wealthy counties like San Francisco able to afford meaningful public defense, while poorer counties like Fresno struggle to ensure each and every client’s constitutional rights are protected.

“California is currently one of only four states that provides no state funding for trial-level public defense services and no mechanism for any state-level training or oversight of trial-level providers,” said Kathleen Guneratne, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “The Governor’s proposal is a noteworthy and encouraging step toward moving California off this disreputable list towards a system of public defense that is more equitable across the state.”

The settlement will also ensure that the Fresno County Public Defender’s Office is adequately funded and can therefore provide constitutional representation to each and every client. In September 2013, over 80 percent of the attorneys working in the Fresno County Public Defender’s Office signed a letter protesting their working conditions. These attorneys had so little time with their clients that they often were unable to discuss the circumstances surrounding the person’s arrest or investigate whether evidence existed that could be used in their defense. Among other provisions, the settlement imposes rigorous reporting requirements and requires Fresno County to allocate a minimum of $23.5 million to the Public Defender’s Office next year and at least $24 million for the following three years, representing an increase of more than $10 million over the Public Defender’s budget the year preceding the lawsuit.

“The Governor’s proposal in this settlement is a significant and important step toward the State of California taking responsibility for criminal prosecutions undertaken in its name to ensure that all Californian’s constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel is guaranteed regardless of whether they are rich or poor,” said Stephen Turanchik, attorney with Paul Hastings LLP.

The settlement agreements can be found here:

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