The Plight of Public Defense
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Politics and Activism

The Plight of Public Defense

What good is guaranteed legal representation if it is poor representation, after all?

The Plight of Public Defense
Southern Coalition

Our constitution is touted as one of the most magnificent documents to ever have been drafted this side of the Atlantic. A right to unfiltered speech, unquestioned faith, and a lawyer should you require one. Imagine you found yourself sitting at the wrong end of the courtroom; the defendant’s chair, that is. Regardless of what it is you may have been charged for, or whether you engaged in illegal activity to begin with, imagine not having adequate legal representation. Calls to your lawyer are short, and your attorney sounds out-of-breath most, if not all of the time. Meetings in the flesh are restricted to them throwing paperwork at you as opposed to discussing your case. How do you think a jury or a judge would respond to a lawyer who obviously seems to be subpar at their profession? Would you be able to tolerate the agony of spending fifty years in jail when it is obvious that should you have had a better lawyer, you may not be locked up in the first place?

Today there is an issue that plagues hundreds of thousands of American citizens who happen to rely on public defenders due to their inability to shell out money for superior services. In our very country, a critical component of our civil rights in the form of guaranteed legal representation, is rendered ineffective due to the horrid state of public defenders who happen to be on the payroll of the state. Public defenders in the United States are understaffed in relation to demand, and are hence overworked, which in turn grossly undermines their capability to represent clients effectively.

We often think of the right to an attorney as being a sort of panacea for the poor and underprivileged. A freebie, if you will. Consider this; according to the Brennan Center of Justice, anywhere from sixty to ninety percent of defendants in the United States require a public defender simply because it is an expense they cannot harbor themselves. If anyone of us in this very room were to be arrested at this very moment, there lies a high probability that we would have to rely on the services of an overworked, undervalued attorney who is not paid adequately for their work. As of this point, we’ve established that many of us would benefit from the right to an attorney, but this does not offer us a clear picture as to the effectiveness of said attorneys.

The Department of Justice last year admitted that an upwards of ninety-five percent of criminal cases in the country result in guilty pleas. Much like a sink is useless if it has no tap, what good is a guaranteed attorney, if a certain quality of service isn’t guaranteed?

This obviously leads to our second point in terms of the pressing issue of public defenders in the United States, what is it about their profession that renders their services so obsolete? The primary factor is overwork as caused by an abundance of cases combined with a shortage of attorneys themselves.

According to a New York Times article, the average length of time a lawyer spends with their client in Brooklyn is a mere ten minutes. Ten minutes is what we should take to shower, to perhaps eat our cereal, or cut our nails. To spend ten minutes on a potentially life-altering courtroom proceeding, however, amounts to the stripping of a defendant’s dignity. If you think six-hundred seconds is bad, as per the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, clients in New Orleans only spend seven minutes on average with their legal teams. Teams. Now that term in itself, is a misnomer. Legal representation requires the provision of several staff members, not a sole barrister piling away at his or her paperwork.

Yet, an upwards of forty percent of county-based public defender offices lack any proper investigator staff on their payrolls as per a report by the Department of Justice. Such a stifling, low-morale work environment has lead to an obvious discord in how barristers practice their professions. Unable to do basic duties, faced with overwhelming piles of cases, and being paid meagerly for their work, it should come as no surprise then that our criminal justice is in shambles. The inability of a public defender to literally, defend their clientele, only serves to swell the mass incarceration we happen to be witnessing in our nation.

You might ask yourself, what does this have to do with me? Insightful discussion on the issue of public defenders is crucial to the age demographic of most college-enrolled men and women seeing as many of us are now eligible for jury duty, may be indicted in non-juvenile courts, and most pertinent of all, reside in a country that guarantees an attorney for a charged suspect should they not be able to afford one. As full-fledged adults as defined by the government, the analysis of a system meant to benefit us is beneficial regardless of one’s involvement in criminal activity. The provision of legal representation is one we are all able to exercise should be happen to be citizens of the United States. Yet, within a system designed to benefit us, there is a critical inefficiency that renders our civil rights as obsolete due to an inability to guarantee those rights in the first place. What good is guaranteed legal representation if it is poor representation, after all?

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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