Oakland — As the county’s improved court system resumes after nearly two years of a COVID-caused recession, the Alameda County Bar Association reported a shortage of qualified attorneys, which became so bad that a director Tried to force a private lawyer to serve in a trial. his will.
In a letter to an Alameda County judge, Andrea Zambrana, director of the county’s Court-appointed Attorney Program (CAAP), described a frustrating situation as she asked a private attorney out of a case facing the life of an Oakland man. Tried to persuade the judge to stop leaving. Zambrana, who was jailed for alleged child abuse, wrote that the program struggled with a “lack of qualified lawyers to be appointed in matters of life”, so bad that she was concerned that the defendant would go without a lawyer for a long time.
The CAAP program is intended to assist criminal court defendants who cannot afford an attorney but also cannot be represented by the Office of the Public Protector because of a conflict of interest. The Alameda County Public Defender’s Office announces conflicts hundreds and sometimes thousands of times a year, forcing attorneys to populate the CAAP roster. They are usually private attorneys who are willing to accept a lower-than-normal rate to take on poor clients, a practice essential to the smooth running of the justice system as thousands of cases make their way every year. .
“In 2012, CAAP received more than three times the number of referrals where defendants are facing life sentences compared to previous years,” Zambrana wrote. “This is an unexpected and sudden increase, with most of these referrals coming in the latter half of the year.”
When a public defender conflicts with a case, it can be for a variety of reasons, including an overloaded caseload or a case involving someone – a witness, victim, or co-defendant, for example – who is represented by the public defender. Office is done by.
County Bar Association chief executive Tiella Chambers said public defenders struggled with 2,800 cases in 2019. That number dropped significantly, he said – to 1,700 – in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced court closures and a nationwide slowdown. As jury trials resumed in 2021, public defenders called 3,100 Abandoned matters, she said.
“We are not sure whether this is due to an increase in crime, an increase in arrests, an increase in cases where life has been charged, or an increase in referencing practices by the public defender,” Chambers said. She said: “COVID has led to the postponement of many criminal trials (through the period of the surge). This means that our present lawyers were short of some time, perhaps, initially, but are now jammed, in such cases all need to be heard soon. So they don’t have bandwidth otherwise they may have to face new cases. ,
Public defender Brendan Woods said that when he took office in 2012, there were about 4,500 cases where conflicts were declared, and he was “committed” to reducing that number. He said the pandemic caused a countywide backlog, as cases were heard or resolved at a slower rate, while the number of filings from district attorneys kept coming in.
“In 2020 to 2021, our caseload became so high that we declared cases unavailable,” Woods said.
In response to a public records request asking prosecutors about the number of times they filed serious criminal charges—such as rape, murder, kidnapping and attempted murder—the Alameda County District Attorney’s office reported 264 in 2019, 305 in 2020 and 274 reported such filing. in 2021. But Ernie Castillo, an attorney on the conflict panel, said he has seen several filings that have complications, limiting the pool of lawyers qualified to handle them.
Castillo said, “Murders in Oakland are routinely charged with special circumstances charges, which moves the case into a more complex legal situation, where the person charged is facing either the death penalty or the death penalty.” or facing life without the possibility of parole.” This decision is made only by the DA’s office at the time the case is charged, and it is made without considering any mitigating circumstances surrounding the defendant’s background. ,
Prosecutors countered that they make individual filing decisions based on the facts of each case. Instead of being resolved through plea deals, only the few cases where murder charges are filed go to trial.
In the end, Zambrana’s arguments in the child molestation case failed. In December, the private counsel was allowed to withdraw from the case. Two weeks later, a Contra Costa County attorney was appointed to represent the defendants, court records show.