In a bid for public defense system reform, this morning the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, and private law firm Paul Hastings LLP filed suit against Fresno County and the state of California. According to the suit, Phillips v. State of California (Fresno Public Defense), the county is failing the 25,000 residents it serves each year, and the plaintiffs attribute it to overworked public defenders and a lack of resources. Fresno County is 55 percent Latino, and 22 percent of county residents are immigrants. And while people of color make up 57 percent of the population, they represent 69 percent of those arrested.

While the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommends that an individual attorney should not handle more than 150 felony cases a year, a conservative estimate finds that the average Fresno County public defender manages 612 cases each year—that’s more than four times the optimal caseload. And for misdemeanor cases, the typical annual caseload is 1,462 per year, versus the recommended 400. 

The upshot: Indigent defendants who turn to the public defender’s office for help are not getting the representation they deserve. In fact, in 2013, the public defender’s office union warned that its members were jeopardizing their clients’ constitutional rights “on a daily basis.” The suit alleges that those clients regularly experience wrongful conviction, unnecessary and prolonged pre-trial detention, pressure to enter inappropriate guilty please, harsher sentences than warranted, and waiver of appeal rights, among other injustices.

“The right to a lawyer is necessary to ensuring that people accused of a crime have a fair hearing and the criminal justice system reaches an accurate result. But in Fresno County, the ability to exercise that right depends on how much money the person makes,” Novella Coleman, a staff attorney for ACLU of Northern California, told Colorlines in an interview. “Because of the state’s and county’s neglect of Fresno’s public defense system, people who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer are spending unnecessary time in jail while waiting for their case to be resolved, and being convicted of crimes they did not commit.”

Coleman says this is especially troubling because of the high number of immigrants living in Fresno. “The failure of the Fresno County public defense system exposes individuals who are in the process of changing their immigration status to a unique harm,” she says. “If they cannot afford to pay for an attorney, then in Fresno County they must rely on a failing public defense system in which they often do not receive legal advice about how a conviction can impact their immigration status. Faced with the prospect of a long period in jail before going to trial, and not knowing the immigration consequences of a guilty plea, they may end up pleading to a crime that makes it harder or impossible for them to become a citizen.”

Ultimately, the ACLU wants the county and state to provide the public defense system with the resources needed to provide its clients with meaningful representation. “Adequate funding and oversight will ensure that people accused of a crime who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer will have legal representation that satisfies minimal constitutional and statutory requirements,” Coleman says. “It will ensure that these persons don’t spend unnecessary time in jail while waiting for their cases to be resolved, that they don’t plead to or are not convicted of crimes they did not commit, and that they don’t unnecessarily take on the legal status of a person convicted of a crime, which has lifelong consequences even after the criminal sentence has been served,” Coleman says.

Follow the case’s progress here