Letter to a Public Interest Lawyer
Listening to the current conversation about criminal justice reform, the public defender can easily feel like an “Alice in Wonderland” type character, who fell through the rabbit hole, into a fantasy world that makes little sense. Prosecutors and police, whose punitive approach to law enforcement has driven mass incarceration, are invited to opine on how to make the system more just while public defenders are completely left out of the conversation. Whether in a 22-chapter collection of solutions – with contributions from politicians and respected reformers, a day-long gathering of speakers discussing race and justice – with a panel specifically devoted to the role of the court system, a white house panel focused on how to fix the crisis, or a 64-page law review article on criminal justice penned by our President, public defenders are rendered irrelevant to the broader discussion about justice reform. At best public defenders are ignored. At times we are called powerless.
And because prosecutors have used the tools at their disposal to decimate our most vulnerable communities, they are seen as the most powerful players in the system. They have largely driven our mass incarceration epidemic and so we mistakenly see them as the solution to the problem.
When a prosecutor appears on the scene who simply sees the people public defenders have stood with for decades as human beings, we laud that prosecutor as visionary. The prosecutor who finally comes to understand what public defenders have always known to be obvious is somehow seen as the answer. We point to a handful of prosecutors who are more humane than their predecessors as the focal point of reform while we ignore the legions of public defenders who have fought against a narrative that dehumanizes poor people since public defense was invented.
It is against this backdrop that the nation's greatest criminal justice minds push for resources and support for prosecutors while turning a blind eye to public defenders who are overwhelmed and under resourced, and to the men and women they represent who are increasingly marginalized.
And it is against this backdrop that law students who are concerned about criminal justice, struggle to figure out where they can best fit in. Many of us talk to law students who ask whether they can make more of a difference as a prosecutor or a public defender. It is only because of a narrative that sees good prosecutors as heroic and good public defenders as irrelevant that a law student could even harbor this question.
So when I was asked to write a letter to public interest law students, and given the leeway to choose the topic, I decided to pen an answer to this question. I laid out a vision that understands public defenders as the catalyst for transforming our criminal justice system. I explain why, although “good” prosecutors are certainly preferable to bad ones, they cannot transform our justice system. They can certainly make it less cruel. But they cannot make it fair. Public defenders, who collectively help give voice to 80% of those in the system, are the key to rewriting this narrative.
I wrote this letter to inspire a generation that we desperately need to join this struggle to appropriately appreciate the critical role of public defenders. But I also wrote this letter to highlight the importance of public defenders more broadly. I wrote this letter to try to get these heroic men and women a bit more of the respect they so rightfully deserve. I wrote this letter hoping the good people involved in this conversation – the people who care about justice but have embraced a narrative that renders public defenders invisible – will begin to recognize that omitting these advocates from the discussion is fatal to transformative change.
This letter is for the men and women who devote their lives to the most important work in our justice system.
You can read the the full law review article, "Letter to a Public Interest Attorney" HERE