One nice thing about America is that even if you are poor, you cannot legally be railroaded for any old criminal accusation; you are guaranteed justice and fair representation. A new report details just how much of a farce that promise is.
The New York Civil Liberties Union's new report examines the state of public defense provided to poor people accused of crimes in New York. SUMMARY: The state is "poor." To be somewhat more specific: in New York, counties have long been required to provide public defense services to the poor. Not the best setup, for obvious reasons! Here is an area in which, perhaps, decentralization was not the best way to go. This entire discussion should take place with the understanding that providing legal services to the poor is one of the most important aspects of our justice system, because it pertains to those without the means to defend themselves from the ruthless onslaught of what our overburdened legal system has become.
A few key points from the report:
- "The New York State Bar Association and national legal experts recommend that attorneys carry no more than 150 felony cases a year. In New York State, public defense attorneys have been known to carry as many as 420 felony cases a year, in addition to misdemeanor cases and, in some instances, family court cases."
-"Although effective counsel often requires a factual investigation and forensic expertise, defense counsel often fail to consult expert witnesses in New York. Experts were consulted in effectively zero percent of the tens of thousands of cases in Suffolk County. In Onondaga County in 2011, investigators were not hired in 99.7 percent of cases."
-"In Washington County in 2012, the seven attorneys in the Public Defender's Office shared a single computer."
This is hardly equal justice under the law. There are really only two choices, if America hopes to try to live up the ideals we so loudly espouse: either we can pay the staggering price to actually provide decent legal services to every poor person charged with a crime, and gape at how huge the bill is; or we can start letting people go free, because we acknowledge that we cannot provide them decent legal services.
A third and perhaps more realistic option is: we tone down the "tough on crime/ lock em all up" philosophy that has guided us for decades now and get a little less punishment-happy. If we're going to railroad the poor, it's much better to railroad them into a $50 ticket than a 50-year sentence.