As pandemic wanes, SF public defender hopes clients will get ‘their day in court’

Like other attorneys in San Francisco, Deputy Public Defender Chris Garcia has a backlog of cases that just won’t stop...

Like other attorneys in San Francisco, Deputy Public Defender Chris Garcia has a backlog of cases that just won’t stop piling up.

With only a few courtrooms running at the Hall of Justice because of the pandemic, some of his clients have been stuck sitting in jail longer than usual, as judges extended deadlines for preliminary hearings and delayed trials.

But Garcia is hoping that will soon change as the criminal justice system awaits news of the courts fully reopening.

With San Francisco returning to normal, The Examiner talked with Garcia about his experiences working during a pandemic and the problems the crisis caused for his clients sitting in jail. He also reflected on how things have changed under the new district attorney.

Q: What’s it been like working at the courthouse during a pandemic?

A: I’ve been in the courthouse from the beginning. When everything started, it was kind of a shock to everyone. We were trying to figure out what the best thing to do was. I think everyone was obviously concerned about a balance between protecting our safety, but also doing our work protecting our clients’ rights. I don’t think any of us ever really failed to recognize or forgot our primary purpose, which is to protect those that need our help the most. A lot of our clients were in jail, and some still are, so a big portion of our job is getting them the hearings that they are constitutionally entitled to in a timely manner. It really just made it a lot more difficult to do that.

Q: To get them out of custody as quickly as possible?

A: That’s always a plus if it’s possible to do that. It’s not always getting them out of jail but getting them their day in court, which was difficult especially at the beginning because they closed all the trial courtrooms. At the very beginning, they weren’t having any preliminary hearings at all. Our clients would ask us what’s the timeline like? When am I going to have my hearing? It’s frustrating, we had to tell them the truth, which was we’re trying to make it happen, but these things are out of our control.

Q: How has COVID-19 changed the way things are done in the courthouse?

A: Fortunately, they were able to do some trials. They had one courtroom open where they could physically have the trial and they had a satellite courtroom where people could sit and watch the trial. They implemented Zoom. That’s been helpful, but I think what’s also a little frustrating is that the changes in the courthouse didn’t always seem to reflect the positive changes that were happening on the outside. There’s talk of them opening up all the courtrooms now, which would be great, but as it stands now, I think that there is still only limited courtroom capacity. Typically our clients are entitled to have their preliminary hearing within 10 court days of arraignment. That was extended to 30 court days since all of this started, and that’s still how they’re doing it now. We’ve been trying to fight really hard to get our clients hearings within 10 days. The trial timeline itself hasn’t changed. It’s always been 60 days. But what’s been happening is as that 60th day approached, the courts will find good cause to continue it, and there’s this huge line of cases that are waiting.

Q: How has the pandemic impacted your caseload?

A: It makes it congested, frustratingly congested. We have all of these cases where we need to have the preliminary hearing, we need to have the trial. We’re just not able to do it for various reasons, and so it’s hard on us because the cases never stop coming in. We’re always assigned new cases and it’s made it very difficult to litigate the cases that we already have. It seems like there’s a pile of cases that just keep piling up. The unfortunate effect is that a lot of our clients are sitting in jail. We have to tell them that we are not able to give them a realistic timeline.

Q: Have you seen more of your clients waiting in jail than they would have previously?

A: Absolutely. I have some clients that were arraigned back in like January or December that are still waiting for a trial.

Q: You’re talking about a backlog. Are you concerned about what will happen when it begins to unclog?

A: It’s inevitable. It has to happen eventually. I’m concerned about our clients because they are really feeling the brunt of it. Yes, it’s going to create more work for me. It’s going to create more work for the DA, for my colleagues. But that’s going to happen eventually, and we are not the people sitting in jail waiting for all of this to happen. I try to remind myself that I am here to help them, even if that’s going to require me to work nights and weekends to get through this.

Q: Last year it wasn’t just COVID that changed things. It was also a new DA coming into office. What are your thoughts on the administration?

A: I’m in favor of the new DA. I think some DAs are more open to listening to people’s stories about what may have gotten someone in a position they’re in. I think they are open to considering alternatives in terms of how to help people. Whereas other approaches to prosecution are purely punitive or largely punitive, that’s when I think there’s a very high recidivism rate because you’re putting someone in a bad position, frankly in a worse position, when they reenter society. What’s the logical outcome of that? They are going to be in a position where they are tempted to commit new crimes. I would say there is more empathy and more of an ability to consider the alternatives.

Q: Does that mean more plea deals, more dismissals or not overcharging cases? What does empathy look like?

A: Giving people an opportunity to prove that they can better themselves. Giving someone an opportunity to go to a drug treatment program, a mental health program. I wouldn’t say it’s completely putting prosecution aside because they are still asking for convictions, but instead of sending someone to prison for a lengthy period of time, giving someone an opportunity for change.

Q: You’re someone who’s defending people who are accused of crimes on a daily basis. For you, what does it mean when you hear talk about there being no consequences for criminals in San Francisco?

A: I would say there is nothing further from the truth. They are 100 percent arrested, they are routinely charged with crimes. I have a lot of clients who are in those situations and some of them are still in jail. Many of them are still facing criminal charges, many of them are convicted of crimes, many of them have to serve sentences. So I’d say there are a lot of defendants or people accused of crimes who are being prosecuted.

Q: As things open up, what are you hoping to see happen?

A: I’m hoping to have clients get their day in court. I’m hoping to be able to tell a client when they ask me when’s my trial, I’m hoping I can tell them it’s going to be within 60 days and have some confidence that that is actually going to happen. That I’m not going to have to tell them you’re going to have to sit in jail.

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