Does the State Need More Help? Apparently it Does in San Francisco

A recent article on sfgate.com revealed a struggle in the San Francisco public defender’s office. Jeff Adachi is the public defender and he begged for two more paralegals or threatened to send homicide cases and other major felony cases to private attorneys if he doesn’t get them. He asked for $50,000 for two part time paralegals.

San Francisco has had major financial issues such as a $500 million dollar budget deficit and the mayor has been requiring cuts in each department so allowing two more qualified paralegals was not going to happen. The cut in the public defender office was supposed to be $850,000 which was not done. Mr. Adachi said it would be a cost savings measure to hire the two paralegals instead of referring these cases to private attorneys. He estimates it would cost the city more than $1 million dollars at $120 per hour.

He also pointed out that his department handles three to four times the work load that private attorneys handle. The Board of Supervisors has countered saying that the average salary of public defender is $82 and with overhead, it would be about what they are paying now and if they do not allow the hiring, they would be saving the two positions.

So, why does the government pay for public defenders anyway?The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the assistance of counsel for his defense.” Under the federal system, most common in states is a publicly funded public defender office.

The Supreme Court heard a case that became a landmark case in 1963 called Gideon v Wainwright and dealt with a middle-aged man who was charged with stealing money and beer from a bar.  He argued that he could not adequately defend himself against a trained attorney.  On appeal, the Supreme Court agreed and strengthened the Public Defender office.  Attorneys are compensated as salaried government employees so are not paid as much as private practice attorneys.  With the high caseloads, qualified paralegals are invaluable in assisting the public defenders with duties they are trained to do.

To avoid the excessive case loads, the American Bar Association and National Legal Aid & Defender Association have made standards regulating appropriate caseloads.  Research has shown that indigents receive the best representation when helped by a well funded professional office dedicated to criminal defense.

Cook County has been in the news with studies showing that innocent people have been condemned to die, in part, due to inadequate representation in Cook County, Illinois which includes Chicago. However, none of the overturned ‘death penalty’ cases were actually represented by Cook County Public Defenders. Stories like this certainly shed a bad light on public defenders.

The plight of San Francisco is unfortunately not that unique in its financial status. With the public defender’s office being a government office, it is sad that legal representation for the indigent is affected when the government has financial problems.

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