Well, here I go again. Saying nice things. I know that is practically illegal to do online, but I promise to get more critical soon. Frankly, my main source for topics has previously been mainstream media, but since the only thing they seem capable of talking about right now is Donald Trump, and since I refuse to get into politics, it leaves me kind of high and dry.
So for now, I want to give another big shout out to all public defenders. It may seem odd for a private lawyer, like me, to root for people who are basically in competition with me. However in reality, there are two types of private criminal defense lawyers: those who criticize public defenders and those who know better. I am firmly in the latter group.
I know that public defenders are typically some of the smartest lawyers in the room whenever I walk into court.
They work hard, know the players and are on top of the latest developments in the law. Yet, they are taken for granted, or worse, maligned as being “Public Pretenders”. My favorite is when clients say, “I didn’t have a lawyer when I was in court—I had a public defender.”
There are two slightly negative (but true) things I say about public defenders when asked by potential clients. After I talk about how knowledgeable and competent they are I tell people that, first, they are indeed overworked and, second, you cannot pick your individual lawyer the way you can when you hire one. You get whoever is assigned to your case. And, to be absolutely fair, there are good PD’s and not so good PD’s, just like cops or judges or prosecutors or barbers. You get the lawyer you are assigned to, which can be a problem in some cases.
But in most cases, you can be very confident that your PD is a great lawyer.
It’s just that they don’t have enough time to spend with you.
Recent news stories about public defense shed a great deal of light on this problem. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, of which I am a proud member, released a detailed report last week regarding problems with public defense. Simply put, they highlighted the lack of funding for public defenders and the improper control judges have over them. I could not agree more.
As a prior long time public defender, and former President of the Washington Defender Association, I was personally involved in submitting funding requests as well as drafting and approving national caseload standards for PD’s. It was always a struggle to figure out how much we dared to ask for, knowing that whatever we requested, we would get less.
Focusing on the NACDL report, the issue of judicial involvement is especially troubling to me.
Imagine that you were charged with a major federal crime and couldn’t afford the $100K or so that those typically cost to defend. Would you be comfortable having the same judge who is ruling to have you held in jail and denying all of your pre-trial motions decide how much to pay your lawyer to defend you? Put it another way, would it be OK if your favorite football team had its roster picked and salaries decided by biased refs who all come from the same town as your opponents? While you are playing in their hometown?
John Oliver did a great piece recently about these problems (as usual, Oliver uses a lot of profanity in his work so be warned.) He points out several glaring problems with the system, including the ridiculous approach of jailing low-level offenders for what are really financial crimes, like not paying for traffic tickets and having your license suspended as a result. People without money are unable to pay the fee required to apply for a public defender and are forced to do without a lawyer as they languish in jail. It costs way more to house them in jail than they are costing the system by not paying their fines. Where is the logic in that? Are we really so interested in creating debtors prisons in this day and age? I am reminded of Ebenezer Scrooge demanding to know if workhouses and debtor prisons in Victorian England were still up and running. Old Ebenezer would be delighted to live in our day and age.
But the main problem with public defense is public defense.
Garbage men are way more useful in the public’s view. They take garbage away. PD’s put it back. That is how most people see it. But try to imagine how you would feel if it was your life at stake. As Oliver points out, the fact that PD’s are being forced to beg for money from private charitable contributions can not be a good thing. What if the garbage men needed private donors to stay employed? We would have a serious rat problem.
This is the issue. People charged with crimes are not rats. Not unless they snitch off other defendants that is (sorry, a little criminal lawyer humor there.) People are people, and the fact that there are more of us sitting in American prisons and jails than are incarcerated anywhere else in the world, per capita, should be alarming to everyone. When those people are not provided with legal representation that is properly funded, it becomes a crisis.
We do have a crisis in our criminal justice system. So long as people are being locked up in droves, many convicted of minor property crimes, without being given access to lawyers who have the time and resources required to protect their constitutional rights, America can not honestly claim to be the Land of the Free; and until people have the courage to stand up and fight against this biased unfair system, we also have to think twice before claiming to be the Home of the Brave.
If you would like Craig Platt’s help with a legal issue, you can find his contact information here or fill out a confidential, easy form about your case.