The Public Defender Crisis, Part II: Possible Solutions
As I outlined in my blog post The Public Defender Crisis, 50 years after the Gideon decision mandated representation for defendants in criminal cases, Public Defenders across the United States are as underfunded and overwhelmed as the initial wave of PDs represented by the cast of characters in my novel, Gideon’s Children.
Let’s understand that complex problems defy simple solutions, and that while the ideal of absolute perfection is a worthy goal indeed, significant steps in that direction that can be accomplished and which enhance the performance of our Criminal Justice System are no less valuable.
Step One: Adequately Fund Public Defenders
Step One is to address “underfunded.” There are simply not enough Public Defenders to handle the tremendous volume of cases, so even in an era of tight budgets, legislative bodies need to adjust priorities and provide the funding necessary to adequately staff Public Defender Offices. As detailed in my last Post, in New York, Governor Cuomo has seen this and is pushing his legislature to provide the required funds.
So, to those of you reading this Post, I urge you to take a minute and email your federal and state representatives and express to them your desire to see these funds provided now! Remind them of that the Rule of Law is based on the respect of our citizenry, and that if minorities and the poor can no longer believe that they can receive proper representation when charged with a crime, then a large hole is torn in the essential element of respect that founds the Rule, and violence such as experienced in recently will reoccur on a growing scale.
Step Two: Clear Minor Cases
Step Two is for the enormous number of the minor cases that clog the criminal courts to be reduced by legislation, and the exercise of executive, judicial, and prosecutorial discretion.
Numerous states have legalized the use of marijuana, which eliminates untold numbers of simple possession cases. In other jurisdictions that have not legalized marijuana such as New York, in New York City, Mayor DeBlasio unveiled a plan whereby people found with a small amount will typically be cited for a violation instead of being arrested and charged with a crime.
Actions such as these not only help unclog crowded court calendars, thus freeing Public Defenders to work on cases involving serious crime, but they also allow the police to focus their efforts likewise.
Prosecutorial Offices, particularly at the City and County level, often file minor cases such as Drunk In Public (not driving under the influence). The Police, particularly in minority areas, are prone to arresting on this charge because it allows them to then conduct a search incidental to arrest in hopes of discovering drugs. And District and City Attorneys are pleased to file this misdemeanor, because they are most often plea-bargained, i.e., the defendant pleads guilty and receives a sentence for the amount of time he or she has already been incarcerated by the time of trial, and is given credit for time served and immediately released. The heads of District and City Attorney Offices are elected officials, and it is helpful come election time if they can point to the number of successful prosecutions that their administrations have produced.
What should occur is that if no evidence of a more serious crime is recovered at the time of arrest, the police should simply release the arrestee after he or she has dried out during the overnight stay in jail, and if the police persist in pressing charges, the District and City Attorneys should not file a formal complaint. In that the obsession with building statistics is present, however, judges then need to pressure prosecutors to drop the charges at the time of arraignment, their argument from a position of power being that there is an array of more serious cases that need attention. And if cooperation is not forthcoming, then the judges need to dismiss these cases on their own motion.
Step Three: Support Anti-Recidivism Efforts
Step Three is to cut down on the rate of recidivism, which is far, far too high. Numerous programs are being introduced into our prison systems to provide convicts with support, vocational skills and even college degrees so that upon release they can find employment and rebuild their lives. In addition, working toward the same goal, many states have programs to curb bias against ex-cons.
Programs such as DC’s Mission Launch and LA’s Homeboy Industries are doing tremendous work to provide re-entry support after incarceration.
These programs must be enlarged and supported. If society does not want repeat offenders, employment opportunities commensurate with their education and skill levels must be available, or a return to crime appears as the only other option.
As always, thanks for listening. Reach out to me on Twitter with any questions or comments @HowardGFranklin