People rarely assess the condition of the United States’ criminal justice system. In fact, it usually takes one being arrested for something to incite the conscious pondering necessary to actually consider the implications of its defects.
We chuckle inside each time we hear someone say that our system is the best system known to man. We always think that man must lack some common sense if he cannot come up with something significantly better. Although every person in the United States who is charged with a crime is technically entitled to representation by a professional attorney, seldom is this entitlement equal to the representation that a well-off person (who can actually afford to hire their own attorney) will enjoy.
The Sixth Amendment to our US Constitution is supposed to guarantee everyone the equal right to effective representation by competent counsel, but if one can’t afford to hire one’s own attorney (and many people who are arrested cannot), an attorney will be appointed. More often than not, this attorney will be appointed from what is called the Public Defender’s Office. A Public Defender is an attorney employed at the taxpayers’ expense to represent the interests of clients who are not in a position to hire private counsel. The question this poses is: if many or most people cannot afford to hire private counsel, is it even practically possible for an overloaded public defender’s office to safeguard the rights of every indigent defendant they are appointed to represent?
Public defenders are employed by the state, or in some cases, they are under contract by the federal government, but all are assigned to represent indigent defendants, and there just aren’t enough lawyers to go around. The Public Defender is many people’s only home to be saved from potentially severe consequences, and in some cases, their very lives. At this point, this kind of hope can only be classified as a false consciousness.
To be fair, some of the best legal work one will ever see has its genesis in the Public Defenders office, but it’s easy to find some of the worst legal work there as well. To give some more context, Public Defenders are always knee-deep in a battle, tackling unmanageable caseloads, and trying to give each case the appropriate amount of attention, a task that is close to impossible. For instance, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that public defenders in Rhode Island carried caseloads far above the recommended limits established by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals. Each day, public defenders work hand in hand with prosecutors and judges, which allows them to develop close professional relationships with these individuals, and which often leads to the best plea bargains in exchange for a guilty plea. These plea bargains save the court system time and money, but there is rarely that same focus and attention given to the actual client.
We understand how at times these public defenders’ jobs can become simply overwhelming. Some days these people see anywhere from 5-45 defendants, all with hope in their eyes, all praying that this attorney can really help them. All of these people want the same attention, and technically all of them are deserving of that attention. But it is utterly impossible for any lawyer to meet that standard. Some of them try but others simply surrender, moving their cases along through plea deals, in an effort to give the most serious cases the lion’s share of the attention. After all, the consequences are much more severe for these individuals.
Unfortunately, the same things that public defenders consider advantages (like their relationships with the judges and prosecutors), can be bad news for their clients. The court wants these overworked and underpaid attorneys to dispose of all their matters as quickly as possible. Most public defenders know that this is impossible to achieve without sacrificing some of their integrity (and, by proxy, their clients), but they do all they can to maintain the relationships they need to effectively navigate their legal community. This is a strategy which benefits the majority of their heavy caseloads, but sacrifices some as collateral damage. Since the public defender is the only representation available to these indigenous defendants, these lambs often find themselves thrown upon the sacrificial altar of our troubled legal system, taking whatever advice their lawyer offers and (whether or not they are innocent), signing a plea bargain in fear of the sentencing judges. They will never know if their public defender ever reviewed their file, or properly advised them to sign away a piece of their lives.
Compared to their counterparts, the state’s attorneys, these public defenders are a much more “real world” representation of the state of our criminal justice system: overworked, underfunded, and, more often than not, stressed out. They have neither the resources nor the humanpower to effectively compete with the long arm of the prosecuting government, but they fight on. Herein lies the problem: these public defenders are the only option for the uneducated and indigent. Often their decisions impact the entire legal system. The choices these defenders make, and lead their clients to make, are treated as benchmarks to address the next defendant charged with a similar offense.
The lure of a safe bet plea bargain causes the actually innocent to sign a deal because they fear receiving an extravagant sentence if they lose a trial, an outcome that is likely due to their public defender’s inability to properly safeguard every one of their client’s best interests. This boosts conviction rates and gives the false sense of security that the system is working properly, and this happens at the expense of people’s innocence and their lives.
Hope is all the indigent defendant has until society can have an active, constructive conversation that could impact the consciousness of the masses. The problem is easy to flesh out, but the solution requires active consciousness and remains a dream until someone, someday, wakes up and takes action geared towards correcting our failed system, which itself bows to the almighty dollar. Only time will tell if we can fix it. Until then, the poor and middle class will suffer the consequences of its defects.