published on January 10, 2020 - 1:37 PM
Written by The Business Journal Staff

Fresno County has settled a lawsuit regarding the staffing level of its Public Defender’s Office, promising to increase and maintain its budget over the next two fiscal years.

The American Civil Liberties Union represented Fresno County taxpayer plaintiffs in the July 2015 lawsuit, alleging the Public Defender’s Office staffing levels were too low, violating requirements under the U.S. Constitution for the defense of indigent defendants.

The office’s budget was gutted after the Great Recession of 2007-2009, with a modest increase in 2011 and the addition of 17 new positions in 2014, according to a Fresno County news release.

“A lot of dedicated attorneys in our Office devoted themselves to ensuring that indigent criminal defendants received the competent representation they were entitled to by law,” said Fresno County Public Defender Liz Diaz, in a statement. “This, along with the budget cuts, put a tremendous strain on the Office.”

Fresno County continued to increase appropriations for the Public Defender’s Office over the years, resulting in a current budget of approximately $23.3 million, which is an increase of approximately $9.5 million since fiscal 2014-15. This includes a staffing level of 162 positions, of which 100 positions are attorneys, for a total increase of 35 attorney positions since fiscal 2014.

In the settlement agreement, the county agrees to increase the Public Defender’s budget to a minimum of $24 million over the next two fiscal years. The Public Defender’s Office will adopt, revise or maintain certain policies and procedures, many of which are already in place, according to the release.

In addition, the county will provide quarterly and semi-annual status reports to ACLU attorneys over the four-year period covered by the settlement agreement. The agreement also provides for the payment of $400,000 in attorneys’ fees to plaintiffs.

In return, the plaintiffs will dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice and there will be no judgment or injunction entered against the county. The settlement specifically states it is not an admission of liability.

The county has consistently argued that the Public Defender’s Office provided excellent representation to its clients throughout this period, according to the news release.

“At this point it would have cost the County more to try the case and win in court than it did to settle,” said County Administrator Jean Rousseau. “I want to compliment Public Defender Liz Diaz and her staff for maintaining a high level of professional service to their clients throughout this challenging period. The Board of Supervisors has appreciated the hard work the Public Defender and all the attorneys and staff in her Office have put in during the lean times.”

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