Public Defenders Key to Reducing Mass Incarceration

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Public Defenders Key to Reducing Mass Incarceration

(Photo: AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

The well-known introduction to Law & Order—the longest running legal series in TV history—is indicative of the criminal justice narrative that dominates American thinking:

“In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important, groups: the police, who investigate crime; and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.”

Police and prosecutors are the good guys in white hats.  Those accused of crimes are threatening and already presumed to be “offenders.”  And defense lawyers—the men and women who protect the rights of the accused—are rendered irrelevant.  We see this narrative dominant not only in our culture, but in our policy and politics today.

Even last week, President Obama ignored the role of public defenders in a panel he convened on criminal justice reform, a long-neglected issue I applaud him for tackling.  The panel included a police chief and a federal prosecutor but no defense attorney, much less a public defender. Like every set of recommendations introduced since this conversation began, the discussion failed to include public defenders as part of a broader reform strategy.

This devaluing of defense counsel is completely contradictory to our democratic ideals.  Our system recognizes counsel for the accused as essential if we are to achieve equal justice.  The Supreme Court said as much in Gideon v. Wainwright when it ruled that poor people accused of crimes must be provided counsel.  The Court recognized that without lawyers there can be no justice, for it is through counsel that all other rights are protected.

That decision was made in 1963, and we understood from experience that we could not always count on the judicial system to protect society’s most vulnerable members.  Poor people, and especially African Americans, had too often been treated abhorrently, and Gideon demanded that—through the right to counsel—there would be greater protections against such treatment in the realm of criminal justice.

Indeed, our nation came to understand the defense lawyer as heroic.  We rooted for lawyers like Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960 and awarded an Oscar for the film adaptation the year of the Gideon decision. We understood the criminal justice arena as a civil rights battleground, and the defense lawyer as critical to challenging a system that is inclined to trample the rights of the poor if left unchecked.

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But as a “tough on crime” mindset took hold of the public psyche over the past four decades, we forgot the importance of our constitutional obligation to protect the vulnerable.  Instead we have created a community of “others”—almost exclusively poor and non-white—which needs to be monitored, controlled, and isolated from the rest of us.  In our rush to punish, the right to counsel gets short shrift as we fail to provide adequate resources so that defense lawyers can serve all of their clients effectively.

Indeed, we have cheered law enforcement while demonizing the populations that are locked up and the advocates who speak for them.  In doing so we have fueled our generation’s greatest civil rights crisis—mass incarceration.   Of the 2.2 million people locked up in America, almost all are poor, and disproportionately of color.

And who represents the people who are being locked up? Public defenders, who serve roughly 80 percent of all of the accused. As a result of our under-investment in these vital public servants, many poor people are forced to rely on lawyers who may juggle 800 cases annually, or are so overwhelmed that they can only spend several minutes on any particular client. John Oliver brought national attention to this problem earlier this year. He highlighted how, for example, some New Orleans public defenders were limited to seven minutes per case, and their office was so under-resourced it had to resort to Kickstarter to raise needed funds.

If we want lasting criminal justice reform and a real end to mass incarceration, we must reverse this practice of ignoring the need for a strongly supported system of public defenders.

We can change laws designed to govern how police, prosecutors, and judges do their jobs, but if we do not adequately support public defenders so that they can point out when the rules are broken, violations will go undetected.

We can devise alternatives to incarceration, but if lawyers do not have the time and resources to unearth mental health issues, substance abuse problems, and other important life circumstances, judges will not have the information they need to ensure just outcomes.

The current national conversation offers us our best shot at comprehensive criminal justice reform since Gideon v. Wainwright.  If we truly care about justice and liberty for every American accused of a crime—regardless of income—then we need to stop treating this conversation as though it were an episode of Law & Order.

Public defenders—and how we as a nation support and invest in them—must be at the center of the reform debate.

Jonathan Rapping

Jonathan Rapping was awarded a 2014 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship for his work with Gideon’s Promise, the organization he founded along with his wife, Ilham Askia. He is also an Associate Professor of Law at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School. He is currently serving as the Director of Strategic Planning and Organizational Development for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender as Gideon’s Promise and Maryland embark on a partnership to improve criminal justice in that state.

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