Besides March Madness, the third week of March 2017 marks other noteworthy occasions. Among these, according to Google, are: Pulmonary Rehabilitation Week, Brain Awareness Week, Girl Scout Week, and Public Defense Week. The value of the first three are self-evident: Breathing. Thinking. Thin Mints.
But why public defense? Isn’t it already inclusively acknowledged in National Law Day (May 1), National Be Kind to Lawyers Day (April 11) and Love Your Lawyer Day (Nov. 3)? Here’s a non-exclusive Top-10 list of why I and my colleagues celebrate a stand-alone week honoring public defense. Of course there are more than these 10 reasons, and we welcome your additions.
10. Without diligent attorneys dedicating some or all of their practices to public defense, the Constitutional right to counsel would crumble. Approximately 90% of all people charged with a felony in Washington state and the U.S. can’t afford to hire a lawyer and must rely on public defense services to defend against the government’s accusations. “The right … to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours,” according to Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963). “Lawyers in criminal cases are necessities, not luxuries. . . . Without counsel, the right to a trial itself would be of little avail,” states United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648, 653 (1984)
9. Results. In spite of typically lower pay and fewer resources, public defense attorneys are as effective as private attorneys.
8. Public defense attorneys are at the forefront of civil rights and social justice reform. On a daily basis, they challenge unfair laws and illegal practices that fall heaviest on persons of color and the poor. They honor the humanity in each of their clients. They are willing to examine their own unconscious beliefs and implicit bias, and they encourage others working in the criminal justice system to do the same. (See ABA resources on implicit bias.)
7. In addition to protecting the rights of the accused in criminal cases, public defense attorneys also safeguard the rights of parents and children in child welfare proceedings. In Washington state, outcomes are reached faster and more families stay together with the involvement of excellent parent attorneys. Children and Youth Services Review, Volume 34, Issue 7, July 2012
6. Public defense attorneys don’t shy away from unlikely partners and innovative approaches that will aid their clients. Defense lawyers helped pioneer the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program in Seattle to redirect low-level drug offenders and sex workers to community services instead of prosecution and incarceration. In Spokane and Olympia, defenders encouraged the development of “community courts” to combat recidivism by helping misdemeanor defendants meet basic needs for food, housing, and employment. And in Thurston County, a public defense attorney led the efforts to create the first veterans court in the Pacific Northwest.
5. Rock-n-roll! On Saturday, March 18, attorneys around the country are participating in Concerts for Indigent Defense, such as this concert in Denver, Colorado, featuring defender musicians. (Please, someone, announce that there really is a concert closer to home that I just carelessly overlooked. If not, let’s plan for next year.)
4. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 2016 set a new record for people exonerated in the U.S., and in more than half of the exonerations, it was determined that no crime actually occurred.
3. When youth are accused of crimes or face unjust punishment, public defense attorneys help remind the courts that the law must take into account adolescent brain development. “Because ‘children are different’ under the Eighth Amendment and hence ‘criminal procedure laws’ must take the defendants’ youthfulness into account, sentencing courts must have absolute discretion … when sentencing juveniles in adult court, regardless of how the juvenile got there,” says State v. Houston-Sconiers, No. 92605-1, slip op. at ___ (Wash. Mar. 2, 2017). “Under our Constitution, the condition of being a boy does not justify a kangaroo court,” states In Re Gault, 387 U.S. 28 (1967).
2. Two words: Not guilty.
1. In their day-to-day zealous defense of individual clients charged with crimes or indefinitely held in civil commitment or facing termination of parental rights, public defense attorneys are vigilantly safeguarding constitutional due process for us all. Thank you.