Yesterday, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice held a hearing on the role of public defenders. The hearing was conducted via teleconference and featured expert witnesses who provided testimony and answered questions from the commissioners.
The commission received testimony from Geoffrey Burkhart, Executive Director of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission; Douglas K. Wilson, Chief Public Defender, Aurora (Colo.) Public Defender’s Office; Carlos J. Martinez, Miami-Dade Public Defender, Miami-Dade County, Fla., and; Mark Stephens, Former Elected Public Defender, Knox County, Tenn.
The panelists discussed the role of the public defender in the criminal justice system. Mr. Burkhart’s opening testimony argued that, “Public defenders are key to a fair justice system. The right to an attorney is a threshold right that helps protect all other constitutional rights… But public defense faces a basic problem: more than half of American counties don’t have a public defender. Instead, they rely on ‘non-systems,’ in which unsupervised attorneys take cases on an ad hoc basis, often for a flat fee.”
In Mr. Martinez’ testimony, he maintained that public defenders’ roles are critical to communities. “The criminal justice system functions by default as if offenders and victims are distinct classes of people with conflicting interests, ignoring the reality that today’s offender was yesterday’s victim (and vice versa),” he said. “Victims are often family and friends, who frequently identify more with offenders than with law enforcement. When punishment is meted out, the offender is not the only one punished, it is family and the community as well.”
All four testimonies touched on the need for more resources. Mr. Wilson stated, “We have no federal mandate on how the delivery of indigent defense should be funded and provided at the state and local level. This lack of direction and support at the federal level has caused severe resource deficiencies, a lack of sustainable workloads and inconsistent if not non-existence training standards.” Mr. Stephens’ testimony added, “Clients living in poverty often internalize a sense of alienation and exclusion that often manifests itself as hopelessness, desperation, frustration, powerlessness, anxiety, or depression. When public defender services are delivered in run-down, undersized, poorly maintained physical settings by attorneys with overwhelming caseloads, that sense of alienation, exclusion, and lack of worth is reinforced by the client’s own lawyer.”
The commission will continue with hearings next week. For more information on the commission, please visit: https://www.justice.gov/ag/presidential-commission-law-enforcement-and-administration-justice.
Audio recordings and transcripts of the hearings will be posted online once available.