Justice is now further out of reach for Alameda County residents
When Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods learned the county’s Superior Court would move all in-custody criminal arraignments from Oakland to a new courthouse in Dublin, California, he knew it would be a disaster. Now, eight weeks into the move, his prediction has proven correct — and it’s even more chaotic than he imagined.
“It’s a nightmare in so many ways,” Woods told In Justice Today. “It’s the biggest issue our office is facing right now.”
The relocation of arraignments is hitting low-income defendants of color from Oakland, Berkeley, and Fremont and their families hardest, according to Woods. Family members who want to be present at the arraignment of a loved one are largely unable to travel to the East County Hall of Justice in Dublin, which is nearly an hour away from downtown Oakland by public transportation.
While the Bay Area’s BART trains do go to Dublin, the train stop is more than a mile from the courthouse. Once in Dublin, visitors to the courthouse have to either walk, or take a bus — an added cost that can make the trip prohibitively expensive. The cost and length of the trip, along with the long wait for arraignments once at the courthouse, requires travelers to the court to take an entire day off from work. Woods and his colleagues have noticed a dramatic drop in the number of family members who appear at arraignments.
Because the arraignments are all for in-custody defendants, the move has also had a disproportionate impact on people who can’t afford bail. Arraignments at the new courthouse, which is struggling to adjust to a higher volume of cases on its calendar, are often held over to the next day, according to Woods. This means his office’s clients spend an additional night in jail.
“If you have the means to bail out, you can have your first appearance in Oakland,” said Woods. “If you can’t afford to bail out, you’re stuck in Dublin. This comes down to economic lines.”
The physical layout and construction of the court itself are also causing problems for public defenders and their clients. Attorneys from Woods’ office often find themselves waiting to use the only interview room attached courtroom that has the largest volume of arraignments on its calendar. There are other, smaller interview rooms on a separate floor of the building, but those are only accessible to maximum security clients. The rooms themselves are not soundproof, and lawyers often have to yell through tiny holes in the glass wall between themselves and their clients for them to be able to hear.
Chad Finke, the Alameda County Superior Court’s Executive Officer, told In Justice Today that the court has “seen steady improvement since we opened the building. To the extent we still face some challenges, they are largely due to construction issues that the County is working to fix.”
But Woods hasn’t heard of any construction plans or seen any work being done to address the inability of public defenders to gain discreet access to their clients to discuss their cases. (When I asked Finke what changes were being made and what the changes would improve, he didn’t respond.)
For now, Woods and his colleagues are struggling to work in the chaotic new courthouse environment, and are documenting every challenge they face in hopes of convincing the County to reverse course. Until that happens, justice for defendants and families far from Dublin — many whom need access to it most — remains out of reach.