As 2019 comes to a close, we reflect on the year’s accomplishments. 2019 is my first year working at the Justice Programs Office and on the Right to Counsel National Campaign (R2C), and I’ve been surprised by the level of collaboration I see between criminal justice stakeholders on the issue of the right to counsel. Perhaps I had low expectations—when your justice system model is called “adversarial,” common goals don’t sound easy to come by—but as I learned more about the repercussions of poor public defense, I began to understand the imperative for collaboration. An effective public defense delivery system helps other parts of the criminal justice system function properly, and many of those who work in this system every day understand that. In terms of meaningful, systemic change, I’m aware that an interest in working together is just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a key start. I’d like to touch on a couple of highlights from 2019 that can inspire us as we move forward.
- In March, R2C released a report titled Engaging Key System Actors in Support of the Right to Counsel. This report presented findings from a series of six roundtable discussions with key criminal justice system actors, including court administrators, prosecutors, county officials, judges, and representatives from law enforcement and state administering agencies. This dialogue helped us create a message about public defense that rings true for many groups:
The right to counsel is enshrined in the Constitution, but too few resources and too many cases prevent public defenders from adequately representing their clients. If public defense receives more support, courts have the potential to run more efficiently, fewer innocent people have the chance of going to jail, and the quality of justice will improve.
With some variation in talking points, this message is an effective tool to garner support from system actors in many roles, not to mention the general public.
- In May, R2C hosted a meeting called “Enhancing Caseflow Management to Ensure Effective Assistance of Counsel” in partnership with the National Association for Court Management and supported by the State Justice Institute. Participants mentioned that they had previously attended meetings titled “Enhancing Caseflow Management,” or meetings about “Effective Assistance of Counsel,” but that this was the first meeting to combine the two. By combining goals that are often pitted against each other, we hoped to create space for system actors to collaborate in a way that, while perhaps desirable, is not often encouraged in the day-to-day of the courtroom. I joined conversations between court managers, judges, prosecutors, and public defenders, and while participants expressed difficulties with collaboration in their home courts, it was clear that they wanted to learn from those in different roles during this meeting. Many participants agreed that cross-discipline trainings at their courts would help get everyone on the same page and allow a wide variety of input. As with the above report, the conclusion is clear: effective public defense is a goal that not only benefits public defenders and defendants, it benefits everyone involved in the justice system. Moving forward means developing new ways to collaborate to achieve this goal.
In 2020, R2C intends to become a stronger resource for those interested in effective public defense delivery systems and the Sixth Amendment. We will focus significant attention on legislative tracking and news gathering, and with this, our recently revamped website will become a hub for information about the current state of the right to counsel.
As our Right to Counsel National Consortium grows, we have plans to expand the range of topics on which we engage our diverse group of stakeholders. One of these topics is the financial implications of providing counsel at first appearance: as we announced earlier this year, we’re working with the Urban Institute and M.W. Consulting to create a cost-benefit analysis model based on data from jurisdictions that have recently implemented counsel at first appearance. Another topic we’re beginning to explore is the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) funds, which are typically not used for public defense. Incorporating public defense into JRI conversations on a state-by-state basis has the potential to bring much-needed funding to local public defense delivery systems. With these projects we continue to ask ourselves the perennial question: How can we ensure that public defense is incorporated into large-scale criminal justice reform conversations?
2020 will bring more conversations and further opportunities to identify a common vision of effective public defense. I’ll see you in the new year!