HOLYOKE — Mayor Joshua A. Garcia’s crackdown on street crime, after a child’s tragic death, is producing both a mountain of arrests and near gridlock in local courts.
Since Nov. 8, under a program called Operation Safe Streets 2, Holyoke saw 97 arrests, 55 criminal summonses and 475 traffic stops in two sweeps, according to a Holyoke Police Department Facebook post.
While the plan is designed to crack down on crime and improve street safety, it has shocked the local justice system. Some of those caught up in the sweeps are in limbo, unable to secure public defenders, resulting in some being held pretrial.
The shortage of lawyers points to a stubborn problem in the court system, defense attorneys say, that has remained unsolved in the two decades since it emerged as a known problem.
“It’s a real quandary,” said Mary-Lou Rup, a retired Superior Court judge.
Francheska M. Vazquez, who was charged Nov. 1 with attempted murder and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon causing serious bodily injury, was detained for almost seven days without counsel because the CPCS Holyoke office was unable to take the case, due to a conflict of interest, according to Holyoke District Court dockets.
Robert P. McGovern Jr., communications director for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said the office in Holyoke typically sees five to 15 new cases a day.
“At that rate, we can handle cases – and the work required – from start to finish,” McGovern said.
But on Nov. 9, 34 new cases were filed, putting significant strain on the agency’s Holyoke Public Defender Division and its ability to represent clients, he said.
The Holyoke CPCS office is not notified when police sweeps are happening. Instead, public defenders show up in the morning at court and find a huge number of people awaiting arraignment and needed lawyers, said Kate Murdock, attorney in charge of the Holyoke CPCS office.
In Holyoke District Court, there are always just enough attorneys to take cases. A series of police sweeps tips the balance, leaving indigent defendants without representation, Murdock said.
At the time of arrest, people charged with crimes should have a lawyer right away — but that cannot happen when there is a large influx of new cases, Murdock said.
While sweeps in Holyoke have and will continue to present a challenge, lawyers with the CPCS Holyoke office have been arguing for bail and a later court appearance to spread out the cases they have taken on. In addition, they have called on attorneys with the group Hampden County Lawyers for Justice for back up, Murdock said.
Shortage of lawyers
Generally speaking, CPCS staff attorneys take 80% of the cases of indigent defendants in Hampden County. Private attorneys with the Hampden County Bar Advocates Inc. take the remaining 20% of cases through CPCS to provide counsel to defendants that staff lawyers with CPCS are unable to handle.
Rup, the former judge now with the Springfield law firm Bulkley Richardson, said several factors contribute to a shortage of public defenders for poor people.
Bar advocates are practicing attorneys willing to accept appointments on cases by the court through CPCS, when the public defender’s office cannot except the appointment.
This can happen when there are no attorneys assigned to a particular court from the full-time public defender’s office, or when people in the public defender’s office have a conflict of interest, Rup told The Republican.
“What has happened over the decades, is that fewer and fewer attorneys are available to take these appointments,” Rup said. “It really comes down to a couple of things — a smaller number of attorneys available and the pay scale is pretty critical.”
“On top of that, many coming out of law of school have been saddled with this incredible amount of debt. It’s not affordable,” Rup said.
Attorneys entering the field today gravitate toward big law firms, or the federal prosecutor’s office, because of the need to repay law school loans, Rup said.
With fewer attorneys willing to sign up for advocate panels and the number of cases being brought forward increasing, advocates who are on the panel get burned out and take on fewer cases on what’s known as “duty days,” Rup said.
“They have been asked to take on essentially full-time work at the low rate of pay, and they have increasingly very high caseloads, so they are able to say no,” Rup said.
Indigent individuals charged with crimes being detained pretrial without counsel, like Vazquez, is not a new issue, Rup said. She said a person in a situation like Vazquez can do little but wait for counsel to be appointed, represent themselves — which Rup does not recommend — or attempt to hire a private attorney.
Low pay, judicial demands and the cost of law school has depressed the number of available attorneys, which in turn causes indigent criminal defendants to be detained without counsel for crucial periods of time, said David P. Hoose, a Northampton attorney.
There are more cases than lawyers, he said.
Stepped-up policing continues
Despite the shock in court, Garcia says sweeps will continue for the next year under Ezekiel’s Plan as funding becomes available.
Operation Safe Streets 2 is a $1 million public safety initiative implemented by Garcia after a deadly shooting Oct. 4.
Authorities say three men were involved in a gunfight on Maple and Sargeant streets. A bullet struck Selena Santana, who was eight months pregnant and seated on a Pioneer Valley Transit Authority bus that was passing by.
Garcia said he will not lose sight of his goal, which is to set a new expectation and standard of civility in Holyoke through increased and consistent police presence , as well as social service measures.
Garcia said that when he was campaigning for mayor, knocking on doors in downtown Holyoke, residents voiced concerns about the police department’s absence in the community. They told the mayor that crimes were being committed openly.
“The most important thing is that residents know that we are responding and that we care. I don’t want to hear ‘I told you and you did not listen,’” Garcia said in an interview.
Echoes of 2004 case
Hoose, the Northampton attorney, was president of the Hampden County Lawyers for Justice group from 2010 to 2021. He said this kind of attorney shortage for poor defendants led to the Nathaniel Lavellee and others vs. Justices in the Hampden Superior Court case in 2004.
On May 6, 2004, CPCS filed a petition to seek relief on behalf of Lavellee and 18 other indigent criminal defendants being held without bail and without counsel by order of judges in the Springfield District Court.
On the same day, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a petition on behalf of Hoose’s client at the time, Michael Carabello, and four others who were also detained by order of judges in the Holyoke District Court without having access to lawyers.
Carabello was charged in Holyoke District Court on April 2, 2004, with armed assault within a dwelling and kidnapping. At the time, an attorney assisted him for “bail only,” but would not represent him beyond that. While Carabello’s bail was set at $100,000 cash, he remained in custody through July without counsel or a bail review.
In the Lavellee case, the court ruled that detaining an indigent criminal defendant without counsel results in severe restrictions on their liberty, court documents said. The harm that resulted, the court said, included the loss of opportunity to speak with counsel to prepare a defense.
The court concluded that no indigent criminal defendants would be required to wait more than 45 days to be appointed counsel to file an appearance. Additionally, an indigent defendant being held could not be held for more than seven days without counsel, court documents said.
Both cases came after judges in Springfield and Holyoke courts denied motions to compensate assigned defense counsel at a higher rate than what legislators had authorized CPCS to pay.
Like Rup, Hoose said the main difficulty at the time in recruiting lawyers was inadequate compensation.
“They were barely keeping up with inflation and the cost of living,” Hoose said of lawyers involved.
About 50 lawyers left the Hampden County Bar Advocate Program at the time because they were unable to make a living.
Hoose said he has met with judges and legislators over the years about the problem. The conditions remain: low rates of pay, big caseloads of emotionally difficult work and pressure from the judges to take on more.
Long-term neglect has caused the pool of applicants to dwindle, Hoose said, despite some efforts by the courts to deal with the issue.
When Hoose started with the Hampden County Lawyers for Justice, there was a waiting list of applicants to join the panel. But because of years of inaction on the issues, when he left in 2021 there were one or two applicants, he said.
“Money would no longer fix the issue,” Hoose said. “It’s an unconstitutional problem.”
Shortages of public defenders have made headlines across the nation in Georgia, Maine and Oregon.
Whenever an increase in defendants hits the court system, it’s an immediate shock — and presents a challenge for the court, said Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for CPCS.
“Right now, it’s a manageable shock,” he said.
As of late last week, no one arrested in the Holyoke sweeps had gone without an attorney, despite delays, and CPCS have taken steps to alleviate the attorney shortage.
“I would say it is much better now than it has been in recent years,” Benedetti said.
Steps taken over time to alleviate the crisis included adding staff and advocating for new language in public service loan forgiveness programs to include private attorneys who do criminal defense work full-time, he said. “We think that that could be a game changer. We certainly think that is a huge positive that will hopefully get more people on the panel.”
CPCS has about 2,800 bar advocates across the state. Just how many more advocates are needed to ease the crisis is unknown, he said.
“It depends on the practice area. It depends on the geography as well,” Benedetti said. “Making sure people get zealous representation doesn’t only reflect the money, but in getting more people to join in the fight.”
To that end, CPSC is reaching out to small and medium-size law firms recruiting lawyers. “We’re letting them know they could pick up 25 cases a year, if they want. We will train you. You will get paid and you will have people to support you,” he said.
Tracy Magdalene, adjunct professor of the criminal defense practicum at Western New England University, said law students in the program sometimes join CPCS offices after training.
Recently, three students were placed in offices in Springfield and Worcester. Others joined in Holyoke and Northampton offices.
Attorneys who complete the “Zealous Advocacy” program through WNEU satisfy the requirement for the county Bar Advocate Program and upon completion are certified to represent indigent adults who are charged with misdemeanors and felonies.
“We’re hoping, especially right now, that people who want to do something in the social justice arena can see that this could be their way,” Benedetti said.