Examining the role of public defenders in disrupting racial injustice


Photo used with permission from Richard Ross.



Michelle Alexander wrote in The New Jim Crow: “The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the black community itself—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.”

February is Black History Month. It’s a time for everyone to reflect on the legacy of progress that black leaders have left throughout history in the fight for liberation, equitable treatment, and empowerment. It is also a time for white allies to examine what they could be doing better to interrupt their own racism and that of others, what it means to support black leadership, and how our nation’s policies continue to oppress black lives. And indeed, it is a time for white allies to heed Alexander’s call to re-examine the role of the criminal legal system in society.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing examples of the race-specific oppression perpetrated by the criminal legal system in the United States today is mass juvenile incarceration. On the one hand, our nation proports to value nurturing youth, recognizing their unique development and protecting them from harm. Yet, on any given day approximately half a million young people under the age of eighteen are locked in juvenile jail cells. Mass youth incarceration disproportionately distrupts the lives of youth of color and traumatizes them. Despite an overall decrease in youth incarceration rates, the proportion of incarcerated young people of color is actually increasing. According to the Sentencing Project, black youth are more than five times as likely to be detained or committed compared their white counterparts.

This month, the Justice Programs Office had the unique opportunity to host a photo exhibit by Richard Ross, a brilliant artist who has spent the last ten years photographing juvenile incarceration systems and the thousands of young people locked within them. Richard Ross’ photos render youth who are otherwise invisible, visible for the world to see.

In many jurisdictions across the country, poor people, most of whom are people of color, do not receive effective assistance of counsel as promised by the Constitution due to systemic pressures. The Right to Counsel National Campaign exists to raise awareness of the essential role of the public defender, to change the way the public understands the Constitutional right to an attorney in criminal cases, and to highlight the power of effective representation.

As frontline protectors of the Constitution and individual rights, public defenders have the potential to engage in the racial justice work Alexander describes, working to re-examine the role of a legal system that wrongfully arrests, prosecutes, and confines poor people and people of color across the country every day. But without proper funding and resources, the ability of the public defender to fight injustice is diminished, if not nullified completely. Public defense providers, in partnership with other willing criminal justice system actors, can help reveal and interrupt injustices at the front end. If you, like me, hope that public defenders can one day have a greater role in meaningfully chipping away at racial injustice, we must work together to honor their role by ensuring they are given adequate resources, access, and time.


Zoë Root, Senior Policy Counsel, Justice Programs Office, American University School of Public Affairs

Interested in learning more about the Right to Counsel National Campaign? Visit http://www.rtcnationalcampaign.org or email Genevieve Citrin Ray at citrin@american.edu