March 18th marked the 56th anniversary of the landmark US Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright and National Public Defense Day. As a former investigator for the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, current project director of the Right to Counsel National Campaign, justice reform advocate, and American citizen, I am proud to celebrate the public defense community and the clients – which could be any of us – they represent.
While one day of celebration is not enough to recognize this community, it does provide a day to reflect and to appreciate the work the defense community does, the impact they have on individuals and communities, and a reminder of the work that still needs to be done to appropriately fund public defense systems with the requisite to ensure effective representation.
In the criminal justice system, we often see “cases” and not “people.” This is manifested in court dockets, practices, and the language used. This framing can lead us to forget the human element and look at it simply as a system and an assembly line. This can erase the lives destroyed and the freedom and liberties taken away from individuals, sometimes for reasons beyond the control of any singular person or entity. Our system is, and must be seen as, more than a list of case numbers and charges; it’s about people – protecting our liberty, seeking accountability, and always focusing on achieving justice for every party. Each person must be heard and treated humanely and with dignity, and have their rights protected and preserved. This applies to everyone in the system – the accused, the complainant, the employees.
If this system is to meet these goals, it must acknowledge that the people in the system are not simply numbers or cases but whole human beings, entire families and communities whose lives are impacted by the system. The system can only achieve these goals by protecting human dignity and seeking justice, when all system actors – including public defense providers – and court users are seen, treated, and funded as essential partners. And it is our public defense providers who can help change the narrative and ensure the accused are seen as people, and not a case number.
Public defense providers are an essential part of the justice system. They help their clients navigate a scary and complex legal system that is designed to be intimidating for the average person. They yield checks and balances holding prosecutors accountable, provide support and a voice for communities, and ensure the justice system seeks to achieve true justice – as intended by our founding fathers – that is frequently spoken about but rarely seen in practice.
Public defense providers are often mispresented in the media and portrayed as a foil for heroic prosecutors coming after the proverbial “bad guy”. It is time that we combat and eradicate these misperceptions. The defense community is strong, tirelessly working with little to no appreciation in systems that are underfunded and under-resourced. I want to take the time now to say thank you; your hard work and dedication does not go unnoticed. If we work together with our communities, advocates, and all system actors, the spirit and application of Gideon can be achieved.