New National Report Highlights RI Public Defender

Back in February I posted about the fact that underfunded Public Defenders are a smokescreen for the real issue: underfunded prosecutors and courts cannot handle the number of crimes coming at them.  A new report by Justice Policy Institute, System Overload: The Costs of Under-Resourcing Public Defense, continues the one-sided argument- although making some excellent points.

The latest report (continuing the BJS findings, as did I) notes the costs to “people” and “taxpayers” through pre-trial detention, and how hasty defense increases wrongful convictions.  Yet it does not point out who benefits.  Any analysis should be a “Cost-Benefit Analysis,” and factor into account those beneficiaries who care neither about people nor taxpayers.  They care about their own bottom line, and their own power.

Those who enjoy and utilize statistics will find a wealth in the new JPI report, such as: 64% of wrongful rape convictions, exonerated from DNA evidence, are Black, although only 12% of America is Black.  I love numbers, but a popular Movement will not be based on numbers.  Simple facts, simple understandings, and a simple view of what the criminal justice system is actually doing will cause the creature to crumble.

Rhode Island and others (including Bronx Defenders and in D.C.) are lauded for taking the entire person into account, including pre-trial and post-release issues that arise from criminal justice contact.

Other than the obvious recommendation, to implement standards of representation as outlined by the American Bar Association, the report recommends two other vital pieces:

  1. Public Defenders should engage in the policy debate.  It is shameful that in a country where so many vital services are conducted through the state, those workers are generally forbidden to speak up or are living in fear for their jobs.  This is a waste of insight and experience, provided they are capable of speaking openly.
  2. Seek input from those who have been served by the Public Defender.  To move our society in any productive way on criminal justice, the “Client” relationship must be seen as a “partnership.”  Are we all in this together?  Or are the poor communities being controlled by an upper-class colonial mentality?  I have gotten more requests from my internet provider to see how they are doing than I have had from anyone in the criminal justice sphere over the past two decades.

This report still fails to pay even a passing reference to the problem of underfunded prosecutors.  I don’t believe it is intentional, it is the product of an arms race.  Funding must keep up with the other side, rather than funding must be reduced to the other side.  In a down economy, nobody will accept sweeping increases for prosecutions… but nor will we see any massive increases to Public Defense.

By making the issue about public defense, one can argue about “coddling criminals” or “can we really afford this?”  But if the argument were about whether the Attorney General and Courts should be 50% of the budget… what then?

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Bruce Reilly is the Deputy Director of Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE) in New Orleans, where he graduated from Tulane Law School. He is a former organizer with Direct Action for Rights & Equality (DARE) in Providence, RI and works with people across the nation on policies related to criminal justice. He is also an artist, poet, director, and playwright, and winner of the 2008 RI State Council of the Arts screenwriting fellowship. Follow his blog at #Unprison.

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