Yesterday the Los Angeles Public Defenders’ Union was formally recognized by the Los Angeles County Employee Relations Committee. This paves the way for collective bargaining for the attorneys who represent defendants who would otherwise be deprived of counsel. The union was organized as a local of Council 36 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
Founded in 1914, the Los Angeles County Public Defender was the first office of its kind in the United States, and is the largest criminal defense firm in the world with nearly 700 attorneys. Staff complained of heavy caseloads and promotions delayed by years, as well as a lack of influence in city and county criminal justice policy. The union drive was further energized by the interim appointment of a County Counsel attorney without criminal defense experience as head of the department, which public defenders protested outside of the aging Central Courthouse.
“This is a huge opportunity for our office to have a real impact on criminal justice reform,” said Ace Katano, one of the union organizers. “Los Angeles is the largest jailer in the world, and the policy decisions that are made here have ripple effects all over the country. Our voice has been absent from the conversation for too many years.”
“This is a very significant event. The LA County Public Defenders will now have a voice in County politics,” added Daniel Curry, a union lawyer with Schwartz Steinsapir, “through the Union, the public defenders will have the ability to speak up in a way that they could not previously do as government employees. The Union can advocate for improved working conditions for the attorneys, for more resources to serve their indigent clients, or even for broader reform of the criminal justice system in Los Angeles.”
Tris Carpenter, interim executive director of AFSCME Council 36, said of the unionization effort, “the County needs to recognize the work of these courageous defenders of Constitutional rights. This effort gives voice to the hundreds of public defenders who make sure every person gets a capable and vigorous defense in Court.”
The Public Defender office in Los Angeles is currently called upon to try hundreds of thousands of cases annually, ranging from felony cases to juvenile misdemeanors. In spite of this already massive workload, the office has spearheaded wide-ranging justice-oriented efforts including the HALO program, which helps divert houseless clients away from incarceration. This unionization effort will only help this city’s public defenders increase their capacity to defended the widest range of clients with the best service possible.
Updated 7/31 with quotes from Daniel Curry.