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Criminal Justice

‘Our Office Is In Crisis’: LA Public Defenders Pen Plea To Reduce Workload

An open metal gate leads into a courtyard in front of the entrance to a courts building.
Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center in downtown L.A.
(Frazer Harrison
Getty Images)
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More than half of Los Angeles County’s active public defenders have signed a letter requesting that the head of their office stop accepting certain cases because of “excessive workloads.”

“Our office is in crisis,” begins the Feb. 22 letter the public defender’s union sent to head Public Defender Ricardo García. It demanded he “declare our office unavailable … to address the increasing burnout of our attorneys.”

Signed by more than 300 public defenders, the letter said the office’s lawyers “have reached the point where they can no longer continue to accept new cases while continuing to provide effective representation to our clients.”

The letter said “[t]he problem is only becoming more acute due to the increase in attorneys leaving the office, as well as attorneys taking leave due to burnout caused by unmanageable workloads.”

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García pushed back on his attorneys' demand. “I will not abandon the indigent accused by going unavailable unless I have done everything possible internally to manage operations,” he said in a statement. García said he’ll work with the County Board of Supervisors and the County CEO “to meet operational needs across the Department."

In response, the union tweeted that "[i]t is deeply disappointing" that García "is suggesting our request ... is to abandon the 'indigent accused.' Declaring unavailability is the only way to ensure our clients are not abandoned due to ineffective representation."

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

‘A Testament To The Gravity Of The Situation’

The union also sent the letter to the five county supervisors. In a cover letter, union leaders outlined some statistics from a recent survey of their members: “over 50% said they have considered quitting due to workload issues, nearly 80% said they do not have adequate time to prepare for cases, and 70% said their current workload is unmanageable.”

It continued, “It is a testament to the gravity of the situation that a majority of our attorneys — from nearly every branch and rank — signed onto this letter within a matter of days.”

We spoke to seven current and former public defenders who signed the letter. All of them said an increased workload in the past few years combined with scores of attorneys resigning or going on leave has stretched them too thin.

“In the 20 years I've been with the office, I've never had such an unworkable caseload as this,” said Karl Fenske, a felony public defender in downtown L.A and union leader.

“I could not even attempt to manage my own caseload anymore,” said a former public defender who recently resigned over the huge increase in work. The attorney requested anonymity because of concerns about future job prospects.

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Before resigning, the former public defender said they had around 50 felony cases — twice as many as they thought was reasonable.

Fenske said the union has recorded over 100 attorney resignations in the last three years.

His own caseload currently hovers around 40 felony cases, which years ago would have been considered far too many, he said. Fenske said he absorbed the caseload of two attorneys in 2020 when he transferred into felony trials for mental health court.

“I still have some of those cases on my calendar today,” he said,

A County Supervisor Calls For An Investigation

Supervisor Kathryn Barger said in a statement that "I entrust that Mr. García will ... address the challenges that line staff are experiencing, finding a workable solution that addresses their concerns and keeps this essential service available for those who need it.”

Supervisor Hilda Solis issued a statement in which she said she's directing the county CEO to investigate, “given the serious nature of these concerns raised by the Public Defenders union, who defend our most vulnerable residents.”

In a statement, Supervisor Holly Mitchell said "I take the challenges expressed seriously" and pledged to continue working with management and staff in the public defender's office and the county CEO "to address this critical need.”

Public defenders we spoke with cited a number of factors that have caused their workloads to balloon. Attorney attrition was the biggest one — not enough bodies to handle all the incoming cases.

Currently, the department hovers below 600 active attorneys, according to union representatives. The union said the office has added at least 30 new lawyers over the last six months, but says that won’t make a dent in the problem.

Another issue our sources cited: Improved options for clients such as mental health diversion programs have led to more work per case for attorneys, but the office has not taken steps — such as hiring more paralegals — to help ease the burden.

“We have to go through the process of appointing experts and ordering medical records and doing a lot of those other things,” said Brooke Longuevan, a public defender in downtown L.A and the vice president of the union.

“There's a lot more steps to the process that involves a lot more resources that we just don't have,” she said.

Several attorneys also cited the increase in law enforcement body camera footage as extra material that can take multiple hours to review.

“It’s impossible for us to do all the work within working hours,” Fenske said.

‘Resources Have Not Kept Up’

Some attorneys who handle misdemeanor cases said District Attorney George Gascón’s policy of not charging many low-level misdemeanors also meant that their heavy caseloads are now mostly serious — and more time-consuming — cases.

“Our cases aren’t like run-of-the-mill driving without a license,” said one misdemeanor attorney who spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak to the media. “I have to actively work on all of my cases.”

Added Longuevan, “The practice has changed. The resources have not kept up with those changes.”

Declining to assign public defenders to cases is not common, but not unprecedented. In 2005, then-head Public Defender Michael Judge declared unavailability and allowed certain cases to go to bar panel attorneys to deal with heavy case workloads.

“He would institute unavailability tactically in the locations where we had too many cases coming in,” said Fenske, who was in the office at the time. He said Judge responded to hiring freezes and attorney attrition in this way.

“That era was the last time we had declared unavailability as an office,” said Fenske, who said the policy only lasted a few years. Judge retired in 2010, and died in 2018.

In 2007, Judge said his unavailable policy meant his office turned away between 2,000 and 19,000 cases a year.

‘It’s Just Heartbreaking To See’

Other states are also dealing with public defender workload and attrition. The American Bar Association recently conducted studies in Oregon and New Mexico and recommended the public defender’s offices in those states impose caseload limits and potentially suspend new case assignments.

“I don’t think going unavailable is a long-term solution by any means,” said Samantha Mergentime, a public defender working on misdemeanors in Long Beach. “But I do think it would help alleviate the immediate concerns that I and a lot of my co-workers have.”

Mergentime said she would have signed the union letter a year ago. In 2020, the Los Angeles Times reported that the COVID-19 pandemic had at times tripled public defender caseloads and led to some attorneys feeling physically ill with stress.

“People are running around saying that we’re essentially triaging cases,” Mergentime said. “There are human beings on the other end of this that are entitled to and deserve zealous, competent representation on every single one of their cases.”

“It’s just heartbreaking to see, truly,” she said.

What questions do you have about criminal justice in Southern California? 
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.