Women Helped Shape Public Defense — and Now Need it More Than Ever

Clara Shortridge Foltz
Clara Shortridge Foltz photo credit Los Angeles Public Library

March is Women’s History Month and March 18th is Gideon’s Day, the 57th anniversary of the landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright that solidified the right to counsel for individuals whose liberty is at stake and who cannot afford an attorney. These commemorations have more in common than first meets the eye: women have had a distinct hand in the creation and strengthening of our public defense system, and women are increasingly in need of effective public defense themselves.

Clara Shortridge Foltz, the first woman to practice law on the West Coast, is a little-known figure, but we have her to thank for the concept of our modern public defender system. Due to the fact that defendants with means would rarely agree to female representation, Foltz represented quite a few indigent defendants. Dissatisfied with the inequities she observed, Foltz presented the idea of public defense at the Chicago World’s Fair, arguing that the right to a presumption of innocence was only possible with competent legal advice. Due to her efforts, Los Angeles opened the nation’s first public defender office in 1913, and the “Foltz Defender Bill” was enacted state-wide in 1921.

While Clara Shortridge Foltz was the first woman to play an important role in American public defense, she was not the last. Here in Washington, DC there is a local legacy of female public defense leaders. In 1968, Barbara Babcock—who later wrote Foltz’s biography—became the first director of DC’s nascent Public Defender Service (PDS), a gold standard for public defender offices in the US. PDS’s trailblazing legacy continued when Cheryl Long became the nation’s first African American woman to direct a public defender office in 1985. PDS’s current director, Avis E. Buchanan, is also an African American woman. She has received multiple awards for her leadership over the past 16 years and in 2015, the Washingtonian recognized Buchanan as one of the city’s most powerful women.

Women—and particularly women of color—remain a minority in many areas of the law today, however. Prosecutor data paints a grim picture; even with substantial gains over the past several years, 95 percent of elected prosecutors are white, 76 percent are men, and only two percent are women of color. In the 141 years after Clara Shortridge Foltz was admitted to the California Bar, California is the only state that has approached gender parity, with women making up 44 percent of prosecutors.

Gender disparities exist for people involved in the justice system as well. Today, women are the fastest growing incarcerated population in the country: between 1980 and 2017, the number of women in prison and jail grew by 750 percent, a growth rate twice as high as men’s. Once again, race plays a role: the incarceration rate for African American women is twice that of white women. A recent federal report found disturbing evidence of gender disparities in punishment within prison as well: for the same rule violations, women are disciplined two to three times more often than men. Transgender women are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted by corrections staff than the greater incarcerated population. Unfortunately, women’s incarceration has particularly wide-reaching ripple effects: 80 percent of women in jails are mothers, most of whom are primary caretakers. As the number of incarcerated women rises, these familial consequences multiply.

Effective representation can help counteract these consequences. With roughly four out of five defendants in the US unable to afford a private attorney, this responsibility falls largely on the shoulders of public defense. As the Prison Policy Initiative stressed in their 2018 recommendations to address gender disparities, “Public defense is particularly important for women who have limited financial resources to afford private attorneys.”

There is much to celebrate on the 57th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, including the work of several female public defense pioneers. As we also mark Women’s History Month, however, let’s remember that as we continue to push for an effective and empowered public defense system, women need good public defense more than ever.

A Vital Takeaway from 2019: Collaboration May Be Our Strongest Tool

People walking on a calendar

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.

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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.

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Effective Counsel Leading to Procedural Fairness

an unbalanced scaleI first learned about the concept of procedural fairness within justice systems in the early 2000s while working at the Department of Justice. The concept seems quite intuitive to me yet when observing court practices, I was struck by how many courts don’t naturally incorporate the elements of procedural fairness into their daily work.

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“Small Threats” to the Right to Counsel Are a Big Deal

Constitution

This month marks 45 years since the passing of Chief Justice Earl Warren, who is remembered for promoting fairness in the justice system, including the Gideon v. Wainwright decision in 1963 requiring states to provide counsel for those who could not afford it. This decision bolstered the importance of effective counsel as part of our Sixth Amendment right to representation. Today, legal representation remains inadequate due to attorney shortages, a lack of funding, and no workload limits. The quality of public defense often suffers, forcing public defenders to decide between caseload efficiency and meaningful representation (see a recent blog post on this subject here).

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Investing in Equal Access to Quality Public Defense

Stacked office filesLast month, California congresswoman and Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris introduced the Ensuring Quality Access to Legal Defense (EQUAL Defense) Act. If passed, the bill would create a $250 million grant program aiming to establish workload limits for public defenders and pay parity between public defenders and prosecutors. The bill would also authorize $5 million to provide training to public defenders.

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