The Right to Counsel National Campaign (R2C) is a public awareness initiative that uses value-based communication tactics to inform policymakers, criminal justice stakeholders, and the public about the importance of carrying out the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel, the ways in which this right is not being implemented, the roles everyone from law enforcement officers to prosecutors to judges and court managers can play in ensuring that the constitutional right to counsel is upheld, and how to reform the public defense system with low-cost or no-cost policy solutions. R2C also seeks to elevate the defender voice in criminal justice reform conversations and provides new opportunities for citizens to become engaged advocates, ensuring effective public defense delivery systems in all courts across the country.
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.
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.
I 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.
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).
Last 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.
Last week, in partnership with the National Association for Court Management and supported by the State Justice Institute, the Justice Programs Office, Right to Counsel team held a meeting with judges and court administrators on how to enhance caseflow management to ensure effective assistance of counsel. I was excited to convene this passionate group of court leaders and hear what they had to say on the topics of caseflow management and effective assistance of counsel, yet was unsure how the conversation would go. I wasn’t completely convinced that enough people would find enough to talk about and stay engaged in over the two days, or if everyone would buy into this exploration of the tension between processing cases quickly while simultaneously allowing for and encouraging effective assistance of counsel. Well, let me tell you—I was proved wrong—the sustained energy, thoughtfulness, and critical thinking that manifested during the meeting and extended into an evening reception was beyond my highest expectations.
April is Second Chance Month and, with that, we celebrate the important role legal aid organizations and public defense providers can play in helping people with criminal records. There are tens of thousands civil collateral consequences of having a criminal record, such as having to disclose prior convictions on job applications, difficulty securing an occupational license, or losing one’s drivers’ license. Receiving legal services can help stabilize housing and reduce barriers to employment for the almost 75 million, or one-in-three, American adults facing these consequences.
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.
The CDC publishes a staggering record of drug overdose fatalities in 2017, Michigan seeks to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 17, and Norfolk, VA stands out for its positive work in drug courts. All of these stories and more in this week’s news roundup.