Public Defenders are Heroes

JPO Director Kim Ball with Mark Holden at Smart on Crime conference.

Public defenders are heroes. That message rang loud and clear throughout the third annual Smart on Crime Innovations Conference. From opening remarks by John Jay College of Criminal Justice President Karol Mason who explicitly highlighted defenders as criminal justice reform leaders to the plenary session on day two when Mark Holden and Justice Programs Office Director Kim Ball had a passionate conversation about why the Sixth Amendment matters.

This is my third year attending the Smart on Crime Innovations Conference. Each year, there has been a public defense representative on a panel, and on occasion, that perspective has been highlighted during a plenary. This year, however, public defense was present throughout the entire conference: in multiple sessions, on the main stage, and in several plenaries. The reception from the audience matched the increased attention the topic received as the crowd applauded enthusiastically as Mark Holden proclaimed that public defenders are heroes.

Public defenders are heroes. They are tasked with protecting individuals’ liberty, the most precious freedom awarded by our country. In fact, it is such a critical task that they are the only profession mentioned in the Bill of Rights. Yet, they often are perceived in a negative light and left out of key criminal justice reform conversations.

Public defenders are protectors of the United States Constitution. They advocate in the best interest of the accused and help share their stories. They hold the government accountable and help legitimize court proceedings.

Today, however, they are overwhelmed with cases and have limited resources, time, and, sometimes, experience to successfully do their job and ensure that our system of justice is achieving its overall goal of justice. This scenario more adversely impacts low-income individuals accused of crimes, who are already most often overlooked by the system. The system needs to change.

Public defense needs support from all criminal justice system actors and the public to ignite change. The presentations at this year’s Smart on Crime Innovations Conference are an indicator that this change is brewing, and we are realizing the critical importance of public defense.

Public defense delivery systems are not their own system outside of the criminal justice system; rather, they are part of the criminal justice system and must be seen accordingly. Strengthening public defense can help solve some of the other criminal justice challenges we are now facing. For example, early appointment of counsel protects individual liberty, holds prosecutors and the government accountable, can avoid wrongful incarceration and conviction, and can mitigate mass incarceration and mass supervision. We have to recognize and act on the fact that by fixing the systemic and cultural challenges surrounding public defense, we can begin to transform our justice system as a whole.