It’s a sad fact that fifty years after the Gideon v. Wainwright decision mandated representation for every person charged with a crime, Public Defenders are still drastically underfunded, understaffed, overworked, and often disrespected by prosecutors, judges, court personnel, and sometimes their own clients.
As illustrated in my novel, Gideon’s Children (http://www.amazon.com/Gideons-Children), Public Defenders are outnumbered by prosecutors by as much as 3 to 1, depending upon the jurisdiction. When I served as a Los Angeles County Public Defender in the late Sixties, and was stationed in the Compton Judicial District, I faced calendars of 10 Felony Preliminary Hearings or 25 Misdemeanor cases alone, while the prosecution had two or three Deputy DAs handling the State’s interests. And while the prosecution had the assistance detailed below, I had me, myself, and I.
The job of a Public Defender is both difficult and lonely in equal measure. It is difficult because the power of the State is enormous. The prosecutor has at his or her disposal the officers who arrested the defendant, an investigating officer, handwriting experts, ballistic experts, a crime lab, and if further assistance is necessary, the services of the FBI. And it is lonely, because against this arsenal, the Public Defender almost always stands alone with the responsibility of defending his or her client resting solely on his or her shoulders. Even the defense’s placement at the counsel table reflects the unequal footing between the prosecution and the defense, with the Public Defender and the defendant seated furthest from the jury box and the prosecutor, who represents The People, closest, an implied good-guy/bad-guy status.
I cannot therefore emphasize strongly enough the tremendous value of the services offered today to Public Defenders by the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project (http://acjusticeproject.org/) and their invaluable program of Participatory Defense!
In organizing communities and educating them with respect to the workings of the Criminal Justice System, then encouraging the active engagement of families in the defense of a loved one who is currently involved in this System, ACJP is providing an extremely helpful service to communities, the families of one charged with a crime, and to the overworked Public Defender who is representing the defendant. By knowing where to go to obtain a copy of the arrest report, family and/or friends can familiarize themselves with the allegations, contact witnesses on behalf of the jailed defendant if there are any, and take photos of the crime scene if relevant. Recalling my own experience as an overworked Public Defender struggling to give each and every defendant on an overcrowded court calendar the best representation possible, and the countless times I wished that I had an investigator to perform such tasks, the value of what ACJP is providing for Public Defenders is incalculable.
And building upon this foundation, ACJP then makes the further contribution of offering training to Public Defender Offices around the country on how to engage client communities and form partnerships with local stakeholders in order to increase the effectiveness and capacity of the program outlined above.
There are few win-win-win situations in life. But in helping individuals in our poorer communities gain knowledge of their own rights within our Criminal Justice System, then training them to further use this knowledge to assist a loved one charged with a crime, and in so doing, lessen the highly stressful burden under which Public Defenders operate in providing the best defense possible under the circumstances for each and every person they represent, ACJP is acting as a Godsend to all parties involved. As a former Public Defender, and one who has never lost his passion for pursuing social justice, heartfelt thanks to everyone at ACJP for the vitally important work they do!
I’m pleased to donate all of the proceeds from the sale of my book, Gideon’s Children, during the month of November to ACJP in support of their continued efforts to promote equality and justice.