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Criminal Justice

Public Defender’s Office Rejects Staff Request To Turn Away Cases Because Of Heavy Workload

An exterior walkway leads to the entrance of the Criminal Justice Center where public defenders often appear in court.
The Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center in downtown L.A.
(Frazer Harrison
/
Getty Images)
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The Los Angeles County Public Defender’s office is rejecting a call by more than half its lawyers to temporarily turn away cases in order for attorneys to catch up with crushing workloads.

More than 300 active public defenders signed a letter from their union requesting that the head of the office stop accepting certain cases. “Our office is in crisis,” begins the Feb. 22 letter to head Public Defender Ricardo García. It demanded he “declare our office unavailable … to address the increasing burnout of our attorneys.”

Administrative Deputy Jon Trochez and Employee Relations Head Deputy Monnica Thelen responded to the union on Thursday in a letter that says “unavailability is neither a viable option right now nor the only option available to alleviate workload challenges.”

While acknowledging that the COVID-19 pandemic and recent criminal justice reforms that “come without new resources” have increased workloads, “there remain potential internal remedies, both immediate and long-term, to the workload challenge,” they write.

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The letter lists steps the office is taking, including hiring 114 new employees — including 64 public defenders — over the past 15 months. It also says management is working with assistant public defenders and head deputies to reduce workloads at offices with high volumes of cases.

And for the past year, “all Head Deputies have been required to participate in direct client engagement” and some have been assigned murder and serious sex offense cases, the letter says.

‘The Very Real Emotional Toll’

The letter follows a statement García sent LAist on Tuesday in which he said, “I will not abandon the indigent accused by going unavailable unless I have done everything possible internally to manage operations."

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The public defenders union issued a statement Friday claiming the office’s response “wholly fails to address the ethical obligations raised in our letter, as well as the very real emotional toll that the current workload is having on the attorneys in our office.”

The union went on: “We insist that Mr. García take responsibility for his clear ethical obligations to his attorneys, and our clients,” and encouraged him to “seriously consider the necessity of unavailability, while continuing to work with us on long-term solutions to the workload crisis in our office.”

Declaring unavailability would send some cases to private bar panel attorneys who can charge the county as much as hundreds of dollars for their services representing indigent clients, depending on the type of case.

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Emily Elena Dugdale covers smaller police departments around Southern California, school safety officers, jails and prisons, and juvenile justice issues. She also covers the LAPD and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.