Courtrooms are overcrowded. The increasing demand for public services is skyrocketing at an astronomical rate. The situation is dire: Countless vacancies, longer processing times and avalanching workloads are being thrust onto staff, the demand for more people to physically be present at their assignments continues to rise.
Enforcement for social distancing and mask wearing depends on each judge and courtroom. The pandemic skyrocketed the demand for public services while resources for the Public Defender Office continue to be reduced at the hand of our elected Board of Supervisors.
Paralegals and attorneys are expected to connect with our clients in-person to collect their wet signature or to discuss specifics of cases. The number of people at Hall of Justice is large despite overflow courtrooms, but so is the risk for infection. While we are told that the majority of our co-workers are vaccinated, and we are expected to slowly return to the pre-COVID work conditions, it’s important to remember that it only takes one infected person to trigger another outbreak.
Paralegals will be returning to Elmwood facility to meet the overwhelming demand in client interviews. The COVID safety precautions at Elmwood are controlled by the Department of Corrections, but how long will those measures be in place, we do not know.
The paralegals and attorneys are expected to interact with guards and inmates in close quarters with the personal protective equipment provided, but they will not have the same safety and protections given to those of us working at the main office. This means that the county offers their protection, poorly defined, in two tiers: workers who are valuable enough to protect and those the county can justify less protection.
In the midst of a public health crisis, the last thing we need is a false sense of security or false narrative. This behavior by the county leaves workers in compromised positions that impact our ability to provide services to residents and clients. We need protection from the virus, but we also need protection from the blunt instruments used to run Santa Clara County.
As protectors of public defense, we are not being protected. While the Board of Supervisors make its decisions sitting safely away from the public, supervisors never face difficulties frontline workers deal with every single day.
Since COVID hit, the Palo Alto courthouse closed in 2020 with no sign of reopening. It’s difficult for clients in the North County to get to the Hall of Justice, especially for clients that are unhoused, that lack means of transportation or money to take public transportation.
If a client is lucky to be working with a case manager or with an organization, they obtain help in next steps such as missing court hearing dates, and even then, it can be difficult to navigate. Many clients don’t have the aid of others to navigate through the process. There are clients still waiting for their court hearing date. They’ve been waiting since 2019.
The county stated there was no money in their budget to save their proposed potential layoffs and cuts to department agencies. The county is utilizing every tool available to disempower us; budget cuts to job freezes to furloughs. These decisions didn’t only impact us as county workers, but the public whom we work so hard to serve.
Every member of the public that needs our services deserves the best that we bring to the table. At the Public Defender Office, we serve justice, and we swear to the Constitution to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. I ask the county to protect us, serve justice, to hear our voice and to know we deserve the best that they have to offer—their protection.
Eka Gvatua is a paralegal from the Public Defender/Alternate Defender Office (PDO/ADO) of Santa Clara County.