The importance of public defenders

By April 12, 2011

In the landmark 1963 case of Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court interpreted the Constitution and held that a fundamental and essential prerequisite to a fair criminal justice system is the right to be defended by competent and effective lawyers.

The court stated, “Reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth.”

Of all the services Yolo County provides, only the services provided by the Public Defender’s Office are mandated by the Constitution.

The Yolo County Public Defender’s Office represents, in all stages of criminal proceedings, indigent persons accused of crimes. Primarily, the office provides legal services to indigent adults accused of felony and misdemeanor criminal violations, and to juveniles prosecuted for alleged conduct that would be criminal if they were adults.

The office also represents proposed conservatees in mental health proceedings when the person is alleged to be unable to care for him or herself; ultimately another individual, a conservator, may be appointed to make critical life decisions for the conservatee. In some cases, the Public Defender’s Office provides legal services to individuals whose parenting interests may be affected.

Why are these services important? Because Americans believe in fairness. They accept the idea that laws should be applied equally and that punishment should fit the crime. However, many people also believe that they, personally, will never need the services of a criminal attorney, much less a lawyer from the Public Defender’s Office. If they are lucky — in life and all it has to offer — that is true.

What every person should appreciate, though, is that the Public Defender’s Office, in addition to representing people individually, also provides a system of checks and balances on the criminal justice system as a whole. It guarantees that no agency — whether that be the District Attorney’s Office or a police department — is allowed to operate unchallenged and unquestioned. The Constitution is very much a reaction to the events that came before it.

“Our founding fathers were careful to reject any system which vested in a single person or group unlimited powers,” explains Yolo County Public Defender Tracie Olson. “The attorneys in my office seek to ensure that the rights of individuals are not whittled away to the point that the goals of the Constitution are forgotten.”

The Yolo County Public Defender’s Office provides all of these services with a team of 21 attorneys, four investigators and five support staff. In the last fiscal year, the Public Defender’s Office handled approximately 6,798 newly opened or reopened cases: 2,860 felony cases; 3,131 misdemeanor cases; 650 juvenile cases; and 157 conservatorship cases. In 2009, 121 jury trials were litigated countywide.

— Beth Gabor is the Yolo County Public Information Officer.

Beth Gabor

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