By Mano Raju
Special to The Examiner
About one year ago, public defenders across the country took to courthouse steps in solidarity with millions who marched in the streets world-wide for the Movement for Black Lives. One year later as cities open up, we know the heavy toll that the pandemic has taken on the working poor and communities of color struggling to access basic healthcare and housing.
Though many in elected office issued proclamations about a commitment to racial equity and justice in the days after the police murder of George Floyd, the reality for our largely Black and Brown client populations and their families remains stark. As millions more are pushed into poverty and homelessness, criminalization of the most vulnerable has continued unabated and our clients have languished in jail awaiting trial days beyond legally permissible. The overtime budgets of the police and sheriff in San Francisco combined are more than the entire public defender budget. The prosecutor’s budget is nearly twice as large. The juvenile and adult probation departments’ combined budgets are more than twice as large.
We spend exponentially more on the departments that arrest, confine, incarcerate, and monitor than we do on the one department that fights for the most marginalized. It is past time for a different approach. We need funding commitments to public defenders so that we can 1) provide a level of representation that is consistent with the requirements of the task of defending vulnerable individuals ensnared in the ever-expanding carceral system; 2) thoroughly and speedily litigate our cases, and 3) breathe life into legal system reforms so that changes in the law can actually reach those they were intended to reach.
We need to invest in more Public Defender staffing, including non-attorney staff, to connect those arrested with rehabilitation, employment, and educational opportunities. Unlike law enforcement, Public Defender social workers are part of the team entrusted with fighting for the accused, and yet are woefully underfunded.
Similarly, the importance of early representation has been demonstrated repeatedly, yet we are fighting to provide this basic right. Studies show that people who receive early representation spend less time in jail and are more likely to be released on their own recognizance. The importance of a strong, well-funded public defender office standing shoulder-to-shoulder with clients and the community fighting for justice and human dignity has never been more important.
When prosecutors file charges, they rely on police reports that have usually been generated within hours or a day after an incident, and with minimal investigation into the witnesses and details of the incident. Once the police report has been written and the charges filed, further police investigation – if any – is almost always conducted with the focus of justifying the charges filed, rather than pursuing any angles that might point to innocence.
Therefore, rigorous advocacy by public defenders is crucial for any chance at balancing the field. By investigating cases thoroughly, finding witnesses, retaining experts and eliciting ignored facts through cross-examination of prosecution witnesses at hearings, defenders are able to provide a fuller picture of any incident. Often, an accused person has a vital perspective that the prosecution will never have access to until trial. Therefore, well-funded aggressive trial advocacy is crucial to providing the fuller picture that can lead to more just results at trial or fairer plea negotiations.
Finally, the past years have generated legislative reforms such as the Racial Justice Act, new laws leading to shorter probation terms, and opportunities for resentencing those sentenced illegally or too harshly. Once the laws change, however, people are not able to just walk out of jails or prisons or automatically receive opportunities that probation or parole had denied them.
Someone has to do the work to get judges to implement the law. Again, it’s Public Defender offices, the least funded of the system, who have to carry the heaviest laboring oar. The dramatic underfunding has a cost for the individuals we represent that impacts not just them, but their families, and in a way that has generational impact. Brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers are torn from their families, their lives treated like they don’t matter.
The City of San Francisco must dramatically increase the funding for Public Defenders who stand up and fight for change. As public defenders, we will continue to call out injustice. To question the system. Every day, we see the dehumanization and indifference to our clients, and the disparate and devastating impact of targeted criminalization and incarceration. We will continue to amplify the voices of all of our clients, their families, and their communities.
There is no greater urgency than now. Action is needed. I ask City and County Leadership and Elected Officials to properly fund defenders.
Mano Raju is the elected Public Defender of San Francisco. He is a co-founder of Public Defenders for Racial Justice and sits on the steering committee for the National Association for Public Defense.