Public defenders fight a skewed system of justice

For all the love Americans rightly show the Constitution, the right to an attorney is a poor step child.

Politicians regularly try to starve the public defender program, and few people care; if you aren’t guilty of something, why are you in court?

If there are heroes who walk among us, the attorneys who insist that the law treat everyone fairly surely are angels.

Take Denis Hynes, profiled in the St. Cloud Times for his 22 years of service as public defender in Stearns County.

“I think that our Constitutional rights are important and if you don’t protect them for the bad guys, who’s going to know that when you’re on trial — or anybody else — that you’re not the bad guy?” Hynes tells the paper. “You don’t have the rights if you don’t protect them.”

“You don’t have to like people to represent them,” he said. “My job isn’t to win, to get them off. It’s to make sure their rights are protected.”

Why is that a concept that garners so little respect?

He’s had almost 7,000 cases since the turn of the century, he says. That works out to more than 100 cases he’s handling at any one time.

It’s not just the system and the population that disrespects public defenders. Quite often, so do their clients. Just ask a PD how many times they’ve heard, “I want a real lawyer.”

“You’re the dog that’s there to kick,” Hynes said. “They’re in trouble and they want us to fix it.”

Only about 11 percent of lawyers graduating from Harvard Law School go into public interest law, where the starting salary is about $45,000, Harvard Magazine says, a fraction of what the corporate world pays.

“The issue of funding public defense is very simple to solve,” Pete Davis, editor of the Harvard Law Review Record, says of the obligation of law schools to advocate for public interest lawyers. “There is already a Legal Services Corporation, there’s already a source of funding for public defenders, but they don’t have enough money, and because they don’t have enough money, the legal system is skewed. The deans of the top five law schools could all go to Congress and say, ‘We cannot keep producing lawyers for a legal system that isn’t working,’ and call on lawmakers to adequately fund public defense.”

A day in the life of a Minnesota public defender (NewsCut)

  • Jeff
    • Kassie

      Justice Department just filed an opinion staying holding people in jail while they wait for a trial just because they can’t afford bail is unconstitutional.

      • Jeff

        I feel that there should only be bail (up front) for violent crimes…where there’s an actual threat to the public and a violent act has been committed. Maybe we’ll see this come up at the SCOTUS soon. If someone skips out on their court case they would still have a warrant issued for their arrest.

      • Laurie K.

        It was not an opinion, the Justice Department filed a “friend of the court” brief in an 11th Circuit Appeal. Any substantial precedence will likely be limited to the 11th Circuit, but it is definitely helpful that the DOJ is weighing in on issues like this.

        • Kassie

          I knew I wasn’t using the right word, but couldn’t figure out how to say it right. Meant “opinion” in the they have an opinion on this and filed it in court sort of way.

  • Khatti

    Protecting Your Rights is more of an abstraction to most people than is: Protecting You From Criminals. No county prosecutor is going to run on the slogan: I will balance criminal prosecutions with Constitutional concerns.

    • Jeff

      County prosecutors just want to move people through the system and collect their money…I had a friend threatened with jail time for a business fix it ticket on a business he didn’t own and he actually fixed the issue. He had the paperwork showing first he didn’t own the business and that it was fixed within the dates required…the prosecutor didn’t care about that documentation and said he’d have to show up in court (taking more days off of work) and that there’d be a warrant issued for his arrest for refusing to pay the fine. Yep, all because some city council member thought some bricks looked loose on a building (they weren’t loose) and even though my friend went bankrupt, turned his business over to Wells Fargo, they took the time to change the locks on the business 4-5 years ago but hadn’t gotten around to claiming the property with the county…so the property was still in his name, though he didn’t have access to the property for half a decade.

      • DavidG

        I don’t know the story how it escalated to a ticket/citation/summons, but I’m not sure the prosecutor typically issues those, and once those are issued, I’m pretty sure only the courts can dismiss them. So yeah, he had to show up in court to challenge it.

        • Jeff

          He was in court when the threat was made…they refused to allow him to resolve it in court that day.

          I mentioned he should have recorded the conversation to show people how prosecutors bully people into paying fines and make threats…he mentioned that all recording equipment and cameras are banned (as per the signs) walking into the courthouse areas.

    • theoacme

      Then all county prosecutors’ slogans should be, to comply with truth in advertising laws, “Todesurteils Macht Frei” (Death sentences will make us free).

  • Mike Worcester

    //if you aren’t guilty of something, why are you in court?

    That’s a sentiment heard quite often from folks who have never been enmeshed in the criminal justice system. The idea that someone who is standing before a judge might not be guilty of what they are accused of can seem ludicrous. Ask the Central Park Five what they think about that concept.

  • Rob

    Harvard’s got a $36.4 BILLION endowment. Mr. Davis and the Harvard law school faculty might consider asking for just a few billion from the endowment, which could then be spread among the various states’ public defender units.

    • Carl Crabkiller

      Harvard Law School has $1.7 Billion endowment funds, of which they allocate a whopping 0.6% annually via the Public Service Venture fund to support “social and economic justice”. I assume a tiny portion of those monies go to some type of public defense. To their credit HLS does offer some student loan forgiveness to low salary graduates who work in the very widely defined “public interest”

      • Rob

        Harvard as a whole has $36.4 billion

        • theoacme

          Then, I presume, since American corporations that stash their profits overseas benefit from equal justice under law ($2.1 trillion, per Bloomberg), that these renegade corporations should also fund public defense proportionally (in other words, for every dollar you make Harvard spend from its endowment, US corporations should spend $50)…

          …and I am not counting the monies that very profitable corporations are just slush-funding away here in the US, while paying far less of a tax rate than hard working Americans like you and I are…

  • Nightowl

    A way to solve a problem in law enforcement and give public defenders a permanent
    funding source would be to make public defenders the recipient of civil asset forfeiture instead of law enforcement.

    • Khatti

      Ooooooh! I like that idea!

    • Laurie K.

      I don’t know if that’s the answer or not. It puts public defenders in a conflicting position. A civil forfeiture action stems from a criminal matter which directly affects the outcome of the civil case. If the criminal case is successful, then the civil action will not be and vice versa. I think it would be incompatible for a public defender to be supported by funds that came, at least in part, from their indigent clients.

  • MikeB

    A tip of the cap for those willing to do public service, legal profession wise. Can only imagine the pressure, lack of support, and very little gratitude in this type of job

  • theoacme

    What America needs are well-funded public attack attorneys that unceasingly attack in the courts of law and public opinion any and all persons in the criminal justice system that commits injustices – for instance, any police officer that commits homicide, and is not even indicted, and any person in their superior levels of government that support the police officers’ (sometimes) homicidal injustice…

    …Obama, Dayton, Ryan, Cornish, Clinton, Trump, Choi, and Freeman – I Daudt any of them will give a damn about equal justice under law unless they’re so bankrupt, they become so homeless and broke, they’re sleeping nude in Two Harbors, trying to dumpster-dive at a Hardee’s…in January…