Let Your Public Defender Values Lead You
In Lorraine Hansberry's book, A Raisin in the Sun, Lena Younger asks her son Walter why he's always so fixated on money. Walter responds by telling his mother, "Money is life!" He explains to her that life has always been defined by how much money one has. She says, "Oh—So now it’s life? Money is life? Once upon a time freedom used to be life — now it’s money…. I guess the world really do change." Walter responds by saying, "No—it was always money, Mama. We just didn’t know about it."
Recently our local prosecutor proudly testified at the state capital that he was able to try a "five week capital murder case for only $100 bucks." He spoke about the incredible satisfaction he received in having won the death sentence, and then having had the fortunate opportunity to see a death sentence carried out. Typically when you hear someone bragging about taking a life for less than $100 they are in a jail cell. You certainly don't expect them to be standing in front of a captive audience in front of a microphone at the state capital wearing a suit and tie.
The comment sent me tumbling down the rabbit hole. I was reeling. Since when did spending $100 to prosecute a capital case become the benchmark for good lawyering? Money may be a measurement for goods and services, but as a value for somebody's life? As a measure of success for taking it? It wasn't just the calculation that bothered me. The lawyer was using the money he purportedly spent to intimate a feeling about the value of my client's life. It was a feeling that I felt powerless to defend.
As public defenders, when we measure value we ask, "Are we meeting our commitments to our clients?" or "How can we improve?" We look to practices that will improve our efficiencies and the quality of services we provide to our clients. We speak in terms of accountability. Budget requests are framed in terms of income, outcome, and the value in our services being delivered.
Prosecutors often start their tough on crime rhetoric by noting their responsibilities toward ensuring public safety. Outcomes typically include statistics about the growing crime rate, the need for bigger prisons, and of course the need for legislation that will authorize stiffer sentences. However, if these statements were framed with an eye toward accountability and value, we would probably find that the excessive growth would be defined as failures, not justifications to continue with business as usual.
Like so many of you, I work in an environment where over-charging has become so engrained in the system that it's no longer seen as unethical. Withholding or delaying the release of evidence is simply process. Jury trial wins are celebrated like sporting events, complete with the ceremonial ringing of the bell.
Our clients may spend months sitting in jail waiting for their cases to proceed to trial. The law states that prosecutors have no duty to present exculpatory evidence to the grand jury so many of our clients will plead guilty to crimes they didn't commit just so they can return home to their lives simply because they are too poor to post bond.
Unfortunately these are the outcomes we will continually see as long as "values" yield to power. Being "tough on crime" is an illusion that places a higher value on the crime itself rather than the human being. This is why we see harsher penalties and more stringent collateral consequences rather than incentives to address the hurdles that keep people with criminal records from successfully reintegrating into society.
A value based justice system where people are at the forefront would mean better quality of lives for all, where victims are made whole and citizen are proud of their accomplishments for maintaining sobriety or earning their degree. In every other industry, whether it is health, the safety of our food, or how well our children are learning in school, quality is measured by the value it adds to our lives, not by what is taken away.
Unfortunately until we acknowledge the difference between the goal of punishment and locking people up to keep communities safe, we will never reach the point where we can have those quality discussions. Politicians will continue to find honor in sentencing men to death for less than $100.
Until then, I feel incredibly fortunate to have the talented leaders and mentors within National Association of Public Defense who I can call upon during the challenging moments. Lena Younger taught her children that tribulations are part of life, but piety and integrity are virtues that will outlast materialism and temper tantrums. "[W]hen you start measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is." Regardless of what our clients have been accused of, each and every one of them is priceless.
Effective organizations are built upon foundations where leaders put their values first. These leaders have the ability to draw people close and to encourage them to act for the good of the whole not through fear or power, but simply because it is the right thing to do. They have the innate ability to provide visceral strength to entire crowds simply by defining their values with "I have a dream…" When our values are kept at the forefront of all that we do, we do not need a microphone or a podium, because our loudest supporters will be those whose lives have been changed by our work.