Lawyers in Service to the Poor: The Yolo County Public Defender?s
By Dave Rosenberg Yolo County Supervisor, 4th District
Lawyers in Service to the Poor: The Yolo County Public Defender's Office
By Dave Rosenberg
Last year, the Yolo County Public Defender?s Office handled approximately 10,000 court cases, a number that encompasses approximately eighty percent of the total of criminal cases prosecuted in our county. The vast majority of these cases are felony and misdemeanor criminal cases, involving both adults and juveniles, and prosecuted by the government through the District Attorney?s Office. The Public Defender caseload also includes people facing involuntary commitment for disabling mental illness, and it includes parents in danger of losing custody of their children based on allegations of child abuse or, more commonly, child neglect. The government is represented in mental health cases by the Public Guardian?s Office and in child custody cases by the Child Welfare Services division of the Department of Employment and Social Services, and each of these agencies is represented in court proceedings by the Yolo County Counsel?s Office.
California has long been a leader in providing legal representation to people being prosecuted by the government who cannot afford a lawyer. In fact, the founder of the modern public defender system was also California?s first woman lawyer, Clara Shortridge Foltz, who represented the California bar at the 1893 Congress of Jurisprudence and Law Reform, held in conjunction with the Chicago World Colombian Exposition, where she first began to advocate for a public defender system. Foltz personally introduced her model bill, which became known as the ?Foltz Defender Bill,? in 32 states. The California Legislature finally adopted Foltz?s public defender plan in 1921, after much legislative wrangling. However, it was not until 1963, in the landmark case of Gideon vs. Wainwright, that the United States Supreme Court held that the U.S. Constitution requires every state to provide free legal representation to those facing incarceration for criminal charges who cannot pay for their own defense.
With so many cases going through our courts, there is always a significant number of cases that involve contested issues of fact that can only be resolved by a judge or jury. In each of the cases it handles, the Public Defender?s Office works to safeguard the rights of the accused to be treated with dignity, fairness, and due process within our legal system. As noted by Justice Hugo Black in Gideon v. Wainwright: The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours. From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law.?
As a practical matter, however, there is little disagreement over the facts in most criminal cases. Our county?s well-trained law enforcement officers and experienced prosecutors do a creditable job of filtering out most unsustainable criminal charges before they ever get to court. As a result, the vast majority of cases are resolved by negotiated disposition without a trial, and the most crucial aspect of a defendant?s case is likely to be the pronouncement of sentence. However, the role of defense counsel during the sentencing phase of a criminal case is crucial and cannot be overemphasized.
Here in Yolo County, the lawyers of the Public Defender?s Office have been active partners in adult and juvenile drug court programs, as well as court-supervised programs aimed at curtailing violence through anger management. ?We?re here to protect the innocent from wrongful conviction, ?says Barry Melton, Yolo County?s Public Defender, ?but the great majority of our work consists of counseling our clients to take advantage of the host of rehabilitative services offered in the community and by the courts, and to use those services to effect positive change in their lives. We know that positive change leads to the kind of personal transformation that significantly decreases the likelihood that our clients will become repeat offenders and face an ever escalating series of criminal sanctions.?
Another component of the Public Defender caseload consists of people facing the possibility of the permanent loss of custody of their children due to allegations of abuse or, more typically, neglect. If the allegations are found to be true, parents are put under social worker supervision and placed in programs aimed at improving their parenting skills and resolving issues such as drug dependency that tend to interfere with the ability to parent effectively. In this area of law, particularly, the stewardship of an experienced Public Defender lawyer can often be the difference between family reunification and the permanent loss of parental rights.
No less than criminal defendants facing jail or prison for criminal behavior, people suffering from mental illness are likewise entitled to the assistance of counsel when the government seeks to deprive them of their personal liberty and self-determination based upon allegations of grave disability. ?Grave disability,? as used in mental health conservatorship and commitment proceedings, requires a finding that the proposed conservatee pose a danger to others or to self: an inability or refusal on the part of the proposed conservatee to care for basic personal needs of food, clothing and shelter. Because a proposed conservatee is not considered gravely disabled if he or she is capable of surviving safely in freedom with the help of willing and responsible family members, friends, or third parties, it often falls upon the lawyers and investigators of the Public Defender?s office to seek out and persuade family members to help out their mentally ill clients.
Although some of Yolo County?s finest trial lawyers work in our Public Defender?s Office, it is a common misconception that these lawyers are courtroom gladiators whose expertise rests exclusively in the field of law and trial advocacy. To the contrary, the effective representation of Public Defender clients requires, at a minimum, a passing familiarity with clinical and diagnostic psychology, psychiatry and organic brain dysfunction; a working knowledge of drug treatment issues; sufficient knowledge of the common forensic sciences including chemistry, DNA testing and analysis, and tissue pathology; and such other knowledge and skills as are necessary to deal with issues that typically arise in the context of criminal, juvenile and conservatorship proceedings. Most importantly, Public Defender lawyers must have an extraordinary sense of dedication and mission. Much as their counterparts in the medical profession, these lawyers often deal with people in the most stressful of circumstances, facing overwhelming odds and great personal loss. We are indeed fortunate to have the lawyers of the Public Defender?s Office working in our county government.
Further information on the Yolo County Public Defender?s Office is available at: