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April 18, 2018

"Why Public Defenders Matter More Than Ever in a Time of Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new commentary authored by John Pfaff for In Justice Today.  The extended piece is not readily summarized, so go read the whole thing.  Here are its closing paragraphs:

As criminal justice reform becomes more politically tenable, however, there is room for public defender offices to take on a lobbying role as well. They are well-positioned to tell legislators the stories about the costs of excessive and counterproductive harshness, to help put a human face on the costs of punitiveness — and, as lawyers, to suggest how to change specific statutes and rules to minimize those harms. But this too requires funding.

It’s worth pointing out that the proposals here would only work in counties or states with centralized public defender offices, as opposed to those that contract indigent defense to otherwise private lawyers.  But that could just mean that fulfilling Gideon’s more-meaningful promise also means pushing jurisdictions that don’t have public defender offices to adopt them.

Historically, public defenders have played primarily procedural roles  —  profoundly important, constitutional roles to be sure, and ones that should be far better funded than they are, even if you ignore all the arguments I’ve made here.  But mass incarceration and mass punishment are not really the products of procedural failings at the trial stage.  They are far more the result of discretionary choices by police and prosecutors, as well as judges and legislators.  Yet in this reformist moment, as voters demand smarter policies from still-opaque prosecutor offices, and as legislators seem more open to less-punitive approaches to social problems, public defenders are well positioned to play a critical role — which makes the role of Gideon all the more important.

April 18, 2018 at 07:09 PM | Permalink



What is the percentage of pleas entered by overworked PDs v. trials?

Posted by: Fluffyross | Apr 19, 2018 7:32:19 AM

Federal public defenders are prohibited from lobbying or suing for prison conditions or other client care issues. I do think that the work of public defenders can and does have a huge impact as the arguments we raised for thirty plus years about crack and powder led to change, as have our constant drum beat agaianst mandatory minimums and mandatory guidelines. But if people knew what we see every day in the justice system, they would (hopefully) be horrified.

Posted by: defendergirl | Apr 19, 2018 9:45:22 AM

Good points defendergirl. Working in the system and with many FPD's, I can attest to your concerns.

Posted by: atomicfrog | Apr 19, 2018 10:33:30 AM

The criminal justice systems are
1.0 Federal
1.1 District
1.2 Military
1.3 Territorial
1.4 Tribal
2.0 State
2.1 District
2.2 County

When someone uses the topic tile "Criminal Justice System" you have to figure out from the context which system they are talking about. I think that Pfaff was talking about state systems. Most others are talking about the federal system frequently ignoring differences between districts. A single system is difficult to understand and lumping them together does not help.

Posted by: John Neff | Apr 19, 2018 1:48:59 PM

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