Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Too good for your own good

A public defender's office is a strange bird. It's created and funded by the same entity that is doing its damndest to restrict the liberty of the citizenry. Its lawyers are often idealistic and dedicated to the notion that everyone is entitled to a vigorous defense - yet its administrators must answer to county or state officials.

If a PD's office is "too good" at doing its job, many will walk free thanks to their efforts; but that won't sit well with government officials who must oversee the office. All it takes is a little less funding her and a smidge less over there and suddenly the work load is too much for the attorneys.

If the courts have any say in the matter they damn sure don't want more cases clogging their dockets. Judges want to move cases so they can get out of the courthouse in time to make cocktail hour before dinner. The last thing they want is the prospect of more cases going to trial.

To find out what happens when a public defender takes his oath, and his duty, seriously, all we need to do is look to Couer d'Alene, Idaho, where John Adams has been told that his services aren't needed anymore. Apparently providing a vigorous defense to those charged with criminal acts up there isn't part of the new job description drafted by county officials.

And, as if to add insult to injury, the decision to tell Mr. Adams to take a flying leap was made after he informed county officials that he had cancer and would need to take off one day a week for chemotherapy.

You see, that's the way to emphasize the point that the public defender's job isn't actually to defend the accused who can't afford to hire an attorney - the job is all about making it appear as if the county is abiding by the Fair Defense Act. For, while Gideon says that everyone accused of a crime in which jail time is a possibility is entitled to a lawyer, it certainly doesn't say how competent or effective that attorney must be.

That's why every jurisdiction around this country has sought ways to reward those who do the bidding of the local masters. Whether that be by hiring contract attorneys to handle indigent cases or by bidding contracts to the lower bidder; whether that be by ensuring that the "wheel" spins to those willing to move cases by the bucket or by cutting funding and staffing in PD's offices - state and local governments want their convictions on the cheap.

The sad thing is there is no solution to the problem. So long as indigent defense is provided and funded by the state, there will always be an inherent conflict of interest. The same government that arrested and locked up a defendant has no interest in seeing that defendant released from beneath the state's thumb. Unfortunately there is no alternative method of funding indigent defense. We should look with suspicion at the indigent defense plans of every jurisdiction in this country because that conflict cannot be made to vanish with the waving of a wand or a print out of a case.

See also:

"John Adams, meet John Adams," Gamso - For the defense (March 24, 2013)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Also odd and in the same vein are those District Attorneys Offices that have a "Conviction Integrity Unit" to investigate claims of wrongful convictions. Would a DA investigate a potential wrongful conviction that its own office prosecuted? Would a DA make it known publicly that Brady violations occurred or junk science came from its own people? Highly unlikely.