| Let Your Supervisor Know You Support the Public Defender
By Jeff Adachi, SF Public Defender Jul 14, 2009
When I was elected Public Defender in 2002, I set out to ensure that the Public Defender’s Office was properly staffed and had the necessary resources to competently represent its clients. Part of the oath I took requires that I “protect the U.S. Constitution,” at all costs.
With the onset of the recession, we have seen the number of people who need legal services increase, while our office’s resources have decreased. This is because there are fewer people in this economy who can afford to hire an attorney.
In this past year, the Public Defender’s Office has lost as many as 10 staff members due to budget cuts. We have also done everything we can to tighten our belts. My staff agreed to give back nearly 10 percent of their salaries to help alleviate San Francisco’s financial problems. We were the only city department to voluntarily give up as much to help save jobs.
When I learned that Mayor Gavin Newsom proposed to cut our budget by $1.9 million, I knew that our office could not sustain such a cut and still provide adequate representation to the 29,000 people we would be obligated to represent this year. I had two choices: remain silent or ask for the public’s support.
In the current economic climate, it is difficult to seek public support for legal services for poor and low-income people. Many people are unemployed and may not be sympathetic to the plight of poor people charged with crimes.
However, the fact remains that our office is a place of last resort for many people who have nowhere else to turn for help: the mother, who only speaks Spanish, whose child was taken into custody after being involved in a fight at school and has no idea where her child is; the family looking for their father who did not return home last night and is rumored to be in county jail; the brother who needs help assisting his mentally ill sister navigate the complex public health system following her release from a locked facility; the middle-aged man who claims that he was wrongfully arrested for robbery and presents a long list of witnesses who need to be interviewed.
If we fail to secure the necessary resources to investigate cases and assist the people who we are entrusted to represent, there will be grave consequences. hese consequences may include the possibility of wrongful convictions and inadequate lawyering, but most importantly, a loss of the public’s trust in our office’s ability to represent those who have nowhere else to turn.
In 1986, when I first joined the office, new lawyers were assigned up to 300 clients. It was an appalling situation. Even though we worked 60-70 hour weeks, we could barely keep up with our cases and frequently met with clients for only minutes at a time before going to court. The attorneys had to pick and choose the cases they worked on. Investigations were sparse, because there weren’t enough investigators to work on all of our cases.
I dreamed of an office where we could provide adequate representation to each client. In 1998, I received the opportunity to become the office’s second-in-command. I immediately began working with others to improve the quality of representation by increasing our staff to include paralegals. We set high standards for our attorneys and staff, which are monitored through annual employee evaluations. We also brought technology to the office, which increased overall efficiency.
It took many years for the office to reach a point where we had reasonable caseloads and could provide the professional representation that the public deserved. Our office not only excelled at providing representation in court, but also in providing other forms of legal assistance.
In 1998, we started a program called “Clean Slate,” which assists over 2,000 people a year clear their records upon proof of rehabilitation. This program helps people who might be denied employment due to the stigma of a criminal conviction. We opened regular, community-based clinic intake days in The Mission, Bayview-Hunter’s Point and other neighborhoods that benefit from this service.
We also improved service to youth who become involved in the juvenile justice system. We hired culturally competent social workers to assist youth immediately after their arrest and link them with social services and educational programs. Three of our four social workers speak Spanish, and two previously worked in The Mission and understand the challenges faced by youth there. We learned that providing caring social workers not only creates a better legal outcome for youth and their family, but a better social outcome.
The presently proposed budget cut means that we may no longer provide these services to youth. Does it make sense to cut these services? Will it actually save the city money to cut them? The answers to these questions are, “no.”
A recent study, performed by an independent researcher, shows that our social workers save the city over $1 million each year by helping to place clients in drug treatment programs instead of jail.
An audit conducted by the Controller’s Office proves that if we were forced to lay-off public defenders, it would actually cost the city more since the cases handled by these defenders would have to be handled by private attorneys. According to the math, it would cost the city $1.4 million more than it would save by cutting our staff.
At the recent budget hearings, I asked the Board of Supervisors to restore the cuts proposed by the Mayor. I received great support from Supervisor David Campos, who is also a highly regarded attorney and has many years of successful practice as a litigator. He knows that people of color are disproportionately overrepresented in the legal system and must often rely on the services of a public defender. Over 70 percent of our clients are minorities and about 15-20 percent are immigrants.
As someone who immigrated to this country as a child, Supervisor Campos also knows that people who are new to this country may not understand their rights or may be fearful to assert them. Public defenders uphold the rights of all their clients, regardless of citizenship or status.
Supervisor Campos attempted to restore $1.2 million of the $1.9 budget cut. He spoke about the important role that public defenders play, and how it doesn’t make sense to pay private attorneys to do what public defenders could deliver more efficiently.
Supervisor Campos was initially successful in transferring $600,000 into our budget. However, during later budget deliberations, $300,000 was taken from our budget and given to the District Attorney, the department in charge of prosecuting cases. The Public Defender’s Office currently faces a $1.6 million budget shortfall that will require that I lay-off 10-12 defenders and staff.
But there is still hope.
The Board of Supervisors will meet on July 14 at 2 p.m. at City Hall to vote on whether to restore our budget.
I humbly ask that you contact Supervisor David Campos at (415) 554-5144 or email@example.com to let him know that you support his efforts to restore our budget.
If you live in the Excelsior or Lower Mission, please contact Supervisor John Avalos at (415) 554-6975 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Not all Supervisors have been as supportive as Supervisor Campos, so please feel free to email other Supervisors as well. You can find a sample letter and their contact information on our website: www.sfpublicdefender.org.
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