Special to the Vanguard
San Francisco/ Oakland, CA – Thousands of people who are eligible for release back to their families and communities will remain locked in California prisons if the Legislature approves Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposal to cut funding for public defender resentencing units.
On Thursday, representatives from the offices of San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju and Alameda County Chief Public Defender Brendon Woods made public comments at the Senate Budget Subcommittee session in Sacramento, urging legislators to preserve funding for these vital programs.
The Legislature is currently debating Newsom’s proposed budget.
The governor’s proposal would cut the third year of funding for the Public Defense Pilot Program, which the Legislature established in 2021 with Senate Bill 129. The legislation set aside approximately $50 million each year for three years beginning in 2021, representing a tiny fraction (0.016%) of the overall state budget.
County public defender offices across the state used that money to fund resentencing units, which employ lawyers, social workers and paralegals to review cases, petition local courts for resentencing, and connect clients to resources upon release, as well as represent some clients at parole hearings.
“This successful program addresses the fact that over-sentenced community members, many of whom are BIPOC, have little recourse for making sure they get out when they’re entitled to,” said Raju. “This painful proposed cut is out of step with what Californians want. It means fewer families can be reunited and it means less healing and rebuilding of impacted communities.”
“This proposed cut is particularly damaging because we just received this money to get our resentencing unit up and running. If anything, we need more funds, not less,” Woods said. “Prosecutors in California get nearly $1 billion more than public defenders. This is not how you create a fair system of justice.”
Legislators had promised at least three years of such funding; the governor’s proposal now cuts the third year.
The two offices noted in a release on Thursday that Public defenders already are historically underfunded compared to police and prosecutors.
“The proposed cuts are particularly concerning because Newsom’s proposed budget promises hundreds of millions of dollars to prosecutors and police, and billions to the prison system,” the two offices stated. “By comparison, across the state and nation, public defense programs routinely receive a small fraction of the funding that district attorneys, police and sheriff’s offices receive.”
The release noted, “Resentencing and parole are critical tools to decarcerate California’s overcrowded prisons and reunite people with their communities and families. In recent years, lawmakers approved a raft of legislation, including bills to undo California’s harsh punishments for so-called felony murder, as well as recognizing that young people are less culpable for criminal conduct because of their brain development and other factors.”
The Public Defense Pilot Program “provides the resources to put these laws into full action.”
“We’re grateful the Legislature has recognized our current system of punishment is outdated and unfair, especially when it comes to our Black and Brown communities. But these laws don’t implement themselves,” Woods said. “We need resources to hire people to do the intense work of investigating cases and filing proposals for resentencings. Gutting our budgets to do this work just as we’re getting going is short-sighted to say the least.”
The San Francisco Public Defender’s resentencing unit, known as The Freedom Project, has assisted more than 100 people in their resentencing and parole hearings and assisted in 77 family reunifications.
“These efforts have saved over 1,000 years of prison time, representing a huge cost saving to taxpayers,” the release continued.
Other public defender offices in the state have likewise helped numerous individuals reduce their sentences and return to their families and communities.
“The Freedom Project team was my lifeline—they saved my life,” said Belinda Anderson, who was represented by Danielle Harris and Stephen Liebb at the The Freedom Project. Anderson served 31 years before earning parole and being resentenced. “My second chance means I get to spend time with my family—especially my daughter and grandson—to celebrate the holidays together, along with other occasions big and small. I am successfully employed and I love the work that I do.”
This Saturday is the 60th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case establishing the right to an attorney regardless of someone’s ability to pay. Marking this anniversary, Woods co-authored an op-ed in the East Bay Times calling for the Legislature to fund public defense and to restore funding for the Public Defense Pilot Program.