An American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against Fresno County, Ca., charges that defendants’ constitutional rights are being violated because public defenders are being forced to handle an average of more than 600 cases annually, Mother Jones reports. Almost one-fourth of the local population lives below the federal poverty line, and many are minorities, who make up 70 percent of Fresno arrestees. The ACLU argues that the underfunded system has perpetuated greater racial inequalities in the criminal-justice system.
“What is happening in Fresno is significant,” says Jonathan Rapping, a lawyer and legal defense advocate who founded Gideon’s Promise, an organization that provides training and support for public defenders who represent the poor. Rapping explains that though the ACLU case focuses specifically on the problems in Fresno, exposing problems at the county level can have a wide impact on addressing systemic issues on a national level. “Theses lawsuits force state systems to examine what they are doing.” Because up to 60 percent of defendants in the U.S. rely on publicly-funded representation, the stasff shortages have led to more incarcerations. “We are breaking state budgets by locking away people who don’t need to be locked away,” Rapping says.