Thursday, April 3, 2008

Race Is Not The Problem

Writing for the Cincinnati City Beat, Margo Pierce wrote this piece about attorney Stephen Bright's presentation to a crop of law students at Northern Kentucky University's Salmon P. Chase School of Law. Bright, the director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, explained his views about fairness (or lack of it) in the criminal justice system:
"I go into courts where nothing has changed since the 1950s, where the judge is white, the prosecutors are white, the court-appointed defense lawyers are white, where the only person of color is the person sitting at the defense table whose life or liberty is on the line. Even in the communities that have substantial African-American populations . . . all of the members of the jury are white."

. . . Bright went on to say that on an arraignment day it looks "like a slave ship has docked outside the court house." In the moments before the judge hears their cases, the men will meet their court-appointed lawyer, and for many it'll be the first and last time they encounter their legal counsel. The lawyer tells the man what the plea bargain is, and the deal is done.

Describing this process as "meet 'em and plead 'em," Bright said, "It's not called justice by anybody . . . The criminal justice system is the part of our society that has been least effected by America's Civil Right movement. The question here, of course, is: Are we going to let this kind of thing go on?

Bright's principle criticism was the adequacy of representation by public defenders. He challenged the ability of the current criminal justice system to provide the constitutional right to counsel. In defense of the defender let me offer the following:

First, I differ with Bright's inference the criminal justice system is unfair simply because the great majority of defendants are of color. Sadly, this disparity is a fact of life. But I hardly believe the criminally accused gets lack-luster legal representation based on the color of their skin. Rather, most deficiencies in the the system can be traced directly to the lawyer and their private work ethic. Money is also an issue as many lawyers taking appointed cases are paid dramatically less than a lawyer working the same case for a retained fee.

Another major problem is the judiciary's failure to financially support zealous representation. As a contrast, consider the Brazos County, Texas judiciary. As a whole they are very attuned to the needs of indigent defendants by financially supporting competent legal counsel. Judges here are willing to provide funds for investigators and other experts when needs are appropriately documented. I've requested thousands of dollars over the years for investigators, mitigation and DNA experts, forensic psychologists, social workers, and the like. As long as my requests were well founded and supported by independently verified facts, the courts had little trouble in granting the requested funds.

The main problem, of course, lies with the lawyer's work ethic . . . not the race of the accused. When lawyers simply want to turn the case for their paltry fee the system suffers. As long as defense lawyers continue to use financial disincentives (i.e., low pay; no money for experts, etc.) as an excuse for cutting corners the most needy in our justice system fail to get the quality representation they deserve. There is but one duty and one loyalty in the practice of criminal law. That is to defend the client with vigor. We push the envelope without regard to our personal cost. We have no divided loyalties - no competing interests. We have but one focus and one responsibility - to defend each client to the best of our abilities.

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