'Right to an attorney' only goes so far. Our war on crime leaves injustice in its wake.
Sixty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court's Gideon v. Wainwright decision established one of the most vital components of our justice system by recognizing that people accused of a crime have a Sixth Amendment right to effective legal counsel.
That right protects all of us against the government's power to lock us away, confiscate our possessions and deny us the ability to earn a living.
But six decades after the Gideon decision was handed down, the promise of that ruling – America's promise – remains unfulfilled.
Ultimately, the struggle for freedom requires rooting out systemic racism and the oppression of women and marginalized communities, including in the legal system.
We're leading the cause of defending against injustice
For the first time in history, the leaders of the nation’s three preeminent organizations of criminal attorneys are Black women, leading the cause of defending against injustice and government overreach.
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We carry the weight of the communities we serve, communities with so many unmet needs beyond the right to an attorney.
And serving those needs – such as equitable opportunities for housing, education, health care, behavioral health services, child care and jobs with living wages – would do more to make our society safe than building more jails and prisons in America. Public defense plays an essential role in these areas.
We seek to give our members who are on the front lines of justice across America – whether public defenders or court-appointed counsel for people who cannot afford to pay – the tools to identify, disrupt and redress institutional bias and discrimination as they champion justice, case by case.
Our country suffers an addiction to mass incarceration. Nearly half of Americans have a loved one who is currently or formerly incarcerated.
More than 5 million people are under supervision by the criminal legal system. Nearly 2 million people, disproportionately Black, are living in jails and prisons instead of their communities, a 500% increase since 1973. We lock up more of our population than any other country.
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Every day, we see more Americans hauled into court due to government overreach, such as the criminalization of reproductive health care and overcriminalization of drugs. Police abuse and prosecutorial misconduct compound the problem.
Since the advent of the failed national policy of mass incarceration during President Richard's Nixon “tough on crime” era 50 years ago, we defenders have at times been complacent in the failures of the system.
When we sound a wake-up call for the system in which we operate, we also rouse ourselves to not be complacent with injustice. We must not just point to policing; we must also face systemic racism and discrimination within our roles as criminal defense lawyers. It’s about being truthful and accountable across the board, especially within our role. Sometimes this hurts. It should.
Public defenders provide check on the system
But public defenders provide a vital check on governmental abuse of power and corruption, as well as on law enforcement and prosecutor misconduct. Beyond simply defending people, we interpret the legal system to our clients so that it makes sense and is fair to all parties.
This is vital in cases where poverty and the justice system intersect; we often reach out to engage resources that help meet our clients’ needs beyond the need for legal representation.
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If we believe in a fair, rational and humane justice system, let’s respect public defenders – not just by marking March 18 as National Public Defense Day on the calendar or giving a speech, but also by appreciating their vital role in the justice system.
We should provide public defenders reasonable caseloads along with the equitable funding and resources required to do their jobs of providing the effective assistance of counsel promised by Gideon.
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Since the Gideon ruling, our nation has at least built the infrastructure in every state and territory where we can fight for equal justice under law.
But the fight for justice is not yet a fair fight. As we celebrate the anniversary of this landmark precedent, our challenge is to ensure that we do not leave the story of the fulfillment of Gideon’s promise, and for a better system of public defense, to our granddaughters.
April Frazier Camara is president and CEO of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association; Lori James-Townes is executive director of the National Association for Public Defense; and Lisa Monet Wayne is executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Public defenders can reform our broken system. Stop undervaluing them.