Fresno County public defenders say the quality of justice is greatly strained these days for people who can't afford private lawyers.
More than 80% of Fresno County's public defenders signed a letter Thursday to the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, Fresno County Superior Court's presiding judge, their boss, Ken Taniguchi, and the county administrative office protesting working conditions, caseloads and the limited number of lawyers, investigative staff and office workers compared with other public defender's offices around the state as well as the Fresno County District Attorney's Office.
Public defenders reached their breaking point last week when a lawyer was fired. She had worked for the office more than a year and was among the hardest workers in the department, fellow lawyers said.
But when she complained about the workload to her superiors, she was fired, her fellow lawyers said.
Without commenting directly on the firing, Taniguchi said his managers must determine if lawyers can handle the workload.
"We look at how they are performing and whether they show long-term potential," he said.
The American Bar Association recommends an annual caseload of 400 misdemeanors and 150 felonies, but some Fresno County defenders have 1,000 misdemeanor and 650 to 700 felony cases per year, said Scott Baly, Professional Association of County Employees president, which represents public defenders.
Fresno County public defenders say they have only enough time to "meet, greet and plead" their clients.
"I believe that the attorneys with less tenure feel afraid to raise issues of caseload and their ability to meet the obligations of their clients with management," said Eric Christensen, a senior public defender.
Taniguchi said funding for his office has fallen since six years ago and caseloads have risen sharply, often leaving public defenders with far more cases. That leaves defendants -- who are innocent until proven guilty -- spending months, sometimes years, longer in jail than they should.
Because of the working conditions, lawyers are leaving the office in droves. About a dozen have left since May 2012. Not all have been replaced.
Baly said some lawyers have gone to other counties where they tested and qualified for higher-level jobs and got promotions and pay raises they couldn't get here.
"Employees in other (Fresno County) departments get promotions and we do not," he said. "Nobody in this department has received a promotion since 2008."
Taniguchi said it's a matter of money.
"I would love to promote, but that all depends on available resources," he said. "Put a person in a higher position and you have to show you can (financially) support that."
The department employs about half as many lawyers, office staff and investigators as the district attorney's office, Taniguchi said.
As a result, the public defenders say, their clients are not getting the legal representation they require. Public defenders represent about 80% of the defendants in pretrial courts.
Hiring more staff will actually save money, they say, because cases will move through the system faster and defendants will be sentenced or set free -- which also would help relieve overcrowding at the Fresno County Jail.
Taniguchi told the Fresno County Board of Supervisors four years ago that the department was in crisis because not enough money was budgeted. He told supervisors his staff -- then 78 lawyers -- would have to decline cases. But he is not saying that to his staff today, his lawyers said.
The office now employs 56 lawyers, including managers.
Supervisor Judy Case said the county has to evaluate where the system is bogging down. At the jail, 69% of all inmates are awaiting trial, and that's too many, she said.
Supervisor Andreas Borgeas, himself a lawyer, said the county's legal system must become a top priority for supervisors.
"The workload has only increased because of the tough times," he said. "The number of cases the prosecutors and public defenders in the Valley have are some of the highest around."
In the year ending June 30, the public defender's office staffed 41,468 cases. Of those, 29,331 were new case appointments, Taniguchi wrote in a report to the supervisors last month.
Employing 50 frontline lawyers to cover that number of cases makes for "an excessively high caseload that goes far beyond what any lawyer could be expected to handle," said Jeff Adachi, San Francisco public defender and a board member on the California Public Defender's Association.
His staff has nearly twice as many lawyers and handles fewer cases.
A law school professor who has studied caseloads and is familiar with Fresno County said the public defenders' caseloads are "unimaginable."
"I don't know how you would do your job with any competency," said Laurence Benner, managing director of criminal justice programs and law professor at California Western School of Law. "How can you investigate a case or evaluate a plea offer? You just take it to a (client), it's like you're a gofer, and you would be right to say you can't provide proper representation."
Reach the reporter at (559) 441-6166 or email@example.com.