Working in Criminal Justice as an International Affairs Student: Understanding the Challenges at Home

Photo of CameronI’ve been working for a little over a year as a student associate at the Justice Programs Office (JPO). Most of my time is taken up by being graduate student at American University’s School of International Service but being a student associate at JPO has been a very rewarding part-time job. As an international affairs student, the daily legal issues I study are very different from those most students who focus on domestic government study. During our studies, we international affairs students observe whether a country adheres to the rule of law or we compare the philosophical underpinnings that countries use in designing legal or governmental systems.   Rarely do we take a deep look at the American legal system or the American criminal justice system. My time here at JPO has built on my personal thoughts about the American criminal justice system and brought them into sharper focus.

 At JPO, I have spent my time working on the Right to Counsel National Campaign, which seeks to raise awareness about the challenges public defense delivery systems face in America. I thought I was aware of these challenges, but the reality is much grimmer than I realized. Some states hide their public defense systems behind unreasonable barriers to access, including fees for access to services, not being able to access a public defender until after a bail hearing, or having to “prove poverty” in order to access public defenders in the first place. There is also a dearth of funding for public defense services. A 2008 Harvard Law Review article states that of the $145.5 billion that is spent on the criminal justice system, over half is spent on supporting law enforcement and prosecutors, while around three percent is spent on public defense services. This chronic underfunding actually runs counter to most Americans’ opinions on supporting public defense. A study commissioned in 2016 by JPO shows that on average, 66 percent of Americans surveyed either strongly or somewhat strongly favor spending tax dollars to provide lawyers for those who can’t afford them. Additionally, 61 percent of Americans surveyed strongly or somewhat strongly support using tax dollars to improve public defense.

This doesn’t mean progress hasn’t been made to improve public defense systems and make them more robust. There is always a focus at JPO on making sure all stakeholders, and not just officers of the court, are present at discussions about reform and given a chance to provide their input. As often as possible, we have sought out and included the voices of those impacted by the system, sharing their stories to highlight the power of effective representation. The stories of people represented by public defenders remind us of the human cost of a system that doesn’t provide fair and equitable justice for all. That when we don’t fund our public defenders properly, we are denying people of their constitutional right to representation under the 6th Amendment, and people can languish in jails and in prisons and lose their homes and jobs as a result. By making the costs—both the human and financial—more prominent to stakeholders, we hope to instill the sense of urgency that this crisis is due.

The time spent here has given me a much greater, more intimate, understanding of what is at stake for millions of Americans. Spending so much time looking outward and trying to understand the problems in bilateral or multilateral relations between international states, those of us in international affairs end up putting the state in a black box, not taking into consideration what is actually happening back home. But in order to promote strong and fair rule of law in other countries and throughout the international system, we need to be able to provide our system as an example.

This has proven true in my experience. During this summer semester, I participated in a practicum abroad, which focused on assisting and evaluating the needs of a legal aid office in Indonesia. Indonesia does not guarantee their citizens the right to counsel, so these nonprofit aid organizations must step in to fill the void, providing legal aid to those unable to afford it. The lawyers I worked with don’t make enough to sustain a life and must work a second job on the side in order to be able to live. They do this work because they passionately believe in it and the value of it. They also must contend with violence from elements of civil society that would see their work go undone. This results in an office of four lawyers who hear over 400 cases a year, while being beaten in the street, for free.  When I explained to them the guarantees that our country tries to provide, many were dumbfounded and envious of our institutionalized desire to have an unbiased system.

Anyone who works in international relations should be invested in how fair and impartial our system in American actually is. Having a system that does not live up to the commitments made by the Constitution creates a weak foundation from which to try and convince other nations to abide by similar rules. Why would a country be convinced to change their legal system to resemble ours when we cannot live up to our own constitutional standards? By informing ourselves on the state of the domestic criminal justice system and advocating for change through critical evaluation of electoral candidates’ positions on criminal justice issues, international affairs professionals can make their jobs easier and improve the country we claim to represent.


Cameron Korver is a graduate student associate at the Justice Programs Office.