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How Rapid Response Lawyers Can Change People's Lives

Holly J. McDede
Longtime public defender Carmen Aguirre sits in her office at the public defender's office. She says the really serious cases are in dark green folders.

Chesa Boudin was elected San Francisco District Attorney earlier this month. But before taking that job, he was a public defender, and he learned how damaging it can be when people aren’t assigned lawyers right away. He founded the Pretrial Release Unit to bring public defenders to people faster.

The Pretrial Release Unit launched in 2017, and it’s modeled after a similar effort in Miami-Dade, Florida. Boudin realized the need for early representation after watching so many inmates hurt their own cases. Suspects would make incriminating phone calls, or talked to the police, soon after their arrest. 

The constitutional right to an attorney, Boudin notes, does not traditionally kick in until a suspect is formally charged and brought to court. 

“A wealthy person gets arrested, they call a lawyer. The lawyer is usually going to advise them not to speak with the police,” Boudin says. “But if you’re poor, and you have no idea what’s happening, you’re probably going to talk to him or her just because you want information about what’s going on.” 

Crucial footage is often deleted after a day, and key witnesses can leave town during that time. 

“So we were losing the opportunity to get evidence that was critical to our clients’ defense,” Boudin says. “We saw that happening with so much frequency that I thought, ‘Maybe there’s a way for us to get to it earlier.’” 

Rubber Slugs And Early Intervention 

Carmen Aguirre is a public defender with the Pretrial Release Unit. At 11 a.m., she already has a lot of people on her mind. She just got back from a San Francisco County jail. 

“I just visited this young man, and he was telling me he had been shot three times by CHP with rubber slugs,” Aguirre says, referring to the California Highway Patrol. “It says he was arrested on a ramp to the freeway. I am not sure how you get arrested for trespassing when you’re on a freeway on-ramp, but we’ll find out.” 

She says this man is unlikely to be charged. Eighty-five percent of people in county jails in San Francisco are in the pretrial phase and have not been convicted yet. 

But because Aguirre connected with this man early on, an investigator with the unit can document his injuries right now. 

“There’s some accountability. Now, this public office knows about this encounter with the police,” Aguirre says. 

This is just one man she’s spoken to today. She interviewed six people already this morning, a few who had recently used methamphetamine. 

Disconnected, Lost, Without Glasses 

“A lot of people I spoke with this morning were kind of disconnected, lost,” Aguirre says. “You just see a lot of people coming down off of drugs, a lot of people with mental health issues that are untreated.” 

Her job is to explain what’s going on and what’s likely to happen next and to find out important details to pass to investigators or lawyers who might take on the case. 

“The gathering of the information is to try to get them out of jail,” Aguirre says.

She also calls employers to explain why the people recently arrested will miss their next shifts, as well as family members who might be worried. 

“One client had been a prolific furniture designer. I called his mom because he had been arrested,” Aguirre remembers. “He was mentally ill, and probably self-medicating with methamphetamine. I called his mom, and she said she hadn’t spoken to him in fifteen years.” 

Many of the calls are logistical. One man she visited this morning asked if she could call his friend to get hold of his reading glasses. He also asked Carmen to tell his friend that he’s not mad at her. 

“I said, ‘I’m not telling her that you’re not mad.’ You can tell her yourself that later,” Aguirre laughs. “My role here is just to help you in like the very basic needs, like, ‘Are you getting your meds?’” 

The Impact 

In the years since it was founded, the team has had an impact. People helped by lawyers with the unit are twice as likely to be released at arraignment, according to a study from the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. 

That same study found that from October 2017 to the end of February 2018, the program saved an average of 950 jail bed days a month.

“An Aggressor To Them” 

One of the people helped by the unit is Dee, a single mother of three who works in construction.

We’re not using her full name to protect her identity. She doesn’t like to be around people, which is one reason she loves the overnight construction shifts.

“I was never the girl that can sit behind a desk and be cute all day long. That would’ve blown my mind,” Dee says. 

She also works the late-night shifts because she doesn’t feel safe working during the day. 

This past summer, she drove up to San Francisco from Vallejo at 4 a.m. to beat the traffic before her shift. She went to sleep in her car in the parking lot near the construction site. 

“I was asleep, with my coat over my head, and it felt like an earthquake because my car just shook,” Dee remembers.

She realized a driver had hit her car hard. When the two people who hit her tried to leave, Dee tried to stop them. Then she called the police. But when police arrived, a woman in the car accused Dee of assaulting her. And the officer arrested Dee instead. 

“I don’t like the ‘R’ word, so I’m not going to say it,” Dee says. “I was hurt. I was the one that called 911. I was straight the bad guy ... I was the aggressor to them.” 

Dee says the cop took her into custody after learning she had been arrested in 2008. At the time, she had filed a restraining order against her ex-boyfriend, who was physically and emotionally abusive. Then one day, in self-defense, she fatally stabbed him with a knife. The public defender’s office represented her in the trial, and she was acquitted of all charges.

“It’s scary. And when I got out, I didn’t even want knives, or butter knives in my house for a long time,” Dee says. “But it’s still an arrest, so it’s still popping up. And it’s killing my life. It’s making it so hard for me.” 

It’s also why she says being arrested again this summer — after calling the police for help — was so traumatic. It’s also why over a decade later, she trusted the public defender’s office to fight for her again. 

The Footage And The Dismissal 

“I feel like the public defender’s office is family. Once I got the handcuffs on me, the public defender’s office was the first people on my mind to contact,” Dee says. “They trusted me. I don’t get that often from a lot of people.” 

A couple of hours after she was taken into a holding cell after this recent arrest, an attorney asked to speak with her. She didn’t expect to see a lawyer that soon. He was with the Pretrial Release Unit. 

“The public defender’s office came to interview me, and told me that he was going to get me released,” Dee remembers.

He told her he’d get an investigator to find video footage of the incident. And that investigator did. The tape confirmed her account. Prosecutors dismissed the charges. Dee says she would’ve lost her job if it wasn’t for them.

“Shoot, rent’s 2,300 dollars and I’m a single parent with three kids. I would’ve been out in the cold right now if it wasn’t for them,” Dee says. “Because of them, I have food in my refrigerator, and we have lights, and we have cable.” 

Time For A Visit 

Back at a San Francisco County jail, public defender Carmen Aguirre is back on the job. Her goal today is like the day before: keep people’s lives from crumbling in the little time she has. 

“So I’m going to ask you a bunch of stuff about yourself, and it may seem like I’m prying, but this is just to help you,” she says to the woman in the interviewing room. The woman is young and looks calm, but tired and worn out. We’re also not using her name to protect her identity.

Aguirre asks the woman a few questions about her family and job and offers advice on who not to talk to while behind bars. 

“Don’t talk about your arrest on the phone, don’t talk to the person you were arrested for having assaulted,” Aguirre says.

“I’ve just been hoping, and wishing that I get out later tonight or tomorrow, early in the morning,” the woman says. She mentions that the last time she was arrested, she stayed in jail for two days, and she never saw a lawyer. 

“To actually have Carmen come and see me before there’s even a court date or anything ... does help. She gets to understand the story, and anything and everything I have going on in my life,” she says. “It’s just a lot.” 

Halting The Mill In The Factory 

Aguirre says it’s unlikely this woman will be charged. She meets with a lot of people who won’t be prosecuted. But they still spend time in jail. And many of them will be arrested again and again before they access real help if they ever do. She says watching that cycle play out over and over can feel like a mill in a factory. 

“These are institutional problems that we just have to keep chipping away at, and put our brains together, have these think tanks, where we try to imagine how it could be different and better,” Aguirre says.

The Pretrial Release Unit is one small piece of that effort. The hope is that with enough new approaches like it, San Francisco will be able to close down one of its jails. But right now too many people are arrested every day for that to happen. So, in the meantime, public defenders meet with the people booked into jail, and try and figure out how to get them home.