Former Prosecutor Unloads on NYT

By BitcoDavid

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Paul Butler is a former Federal prosecutor who (guilty of Driving While Black) learned firsthand what our punishment-crazed culture is all about. He now writes about Justice System reform, and is best known for his excellent book, Let’s Get Free – A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice. He did a beautiful op-ed piece in the Times, about the Gideon v. Wainwright case, which we discussed in You Have the Right to an Attorney… FAIL!

Two things should be clearly understood at the outset of this post. 1) The supreme court believed so strongly that all defendants deserved legal council, that they voted unanimously in the ruling. 2) Butler was a Federal Prosecutor when he found himself up against the lynch-mob mentality that is modern prosecution. If he had his rights trampled on, what chance do you or I have?

Mr Butler:

FIFTY years after the Supreme Court, in Gideon v. Wainwright, guaranteed legal representation to poor people charged with serious crimes, low-income criminal defendants, particularly black ones, are significantly worse off.

Don’t blame public defenders, who are usually overwhelmed. The problem lies with power-drunk prosecutors — I know, because I used to be one — and “tough on crime” lawmakers, who have enacted some of the world’s harshest sentencing laws. They mean well, but have created a system that makes a mockery of “equal justice under the law.” A black man without a high school diploma is more likely to be in prison than to have a job. — NYT (Emphasis, mine.)

Circle Players
Circle Players

In Harper Lee‘s timeless classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is asked to defend Tom Robinson, a Black man accused of raping a White, teen-aged girl – in the deep South. Finch faces huge opposition from the townspeople, but gives Robinson the best defense available – struggling between his belief in right and wrong, and his devotion to community. But the poor in America today, don’t get Atticus Finch. They get an overworked, underfunded Public Defender who merely makes a vain attempt at plea-bargaining the case down. And that’s if they’re lucky. Budget cuts and tough on crime elected officials are making it more difficult for the poor to get any representation at all.

More from Butler’s piece:

A poor person has a much greater chance of being incarcerated now than when Gideon was decided, 50 years ago today. This is not because of increased criminality — violent crime has plunged from its peak in the early 1990s — but because of prosecutorial policies that essentially target the poor and relegate their lawyers to negotiating guilty pleas, rather than mounting a defense.

After Gideon, things got better for poor defendants in the short term. Thousands who had not had lawyers at trial were released from jail. Many states and localities created public defenders’ offices. But political and legal developments soon eroded those achievements.

The so-called war on crime greatly expanded criminal liability. A prosecutor can almost always find some charge: there are over 4,000 crimes on the federal books alone. Recreational drug use is one of the more popular activities in America, but racial minorities suffer the brunt of drug-related convictions. –NYT

You can read the rest of this brilliant assessment of our current state of Justice for the poor, here.

BitcoDavid is a blogger and a blog site consultant. In former lives, he was an audio engineer, a videographer, a teacher – even a cab driver. He is an avid health and fitness enthusiast and a Pro/Am boxer. He has spent years working with diet and exercise to combat obesity and obesity related illness.

4 thoughts on “Former Prosecutor Unloads on NYT

  1. The Supreme Court mandated representation in some criminal cases, but not all. Where there is less than a year of incarceration at stake there is no mandate. And, as is pointed out, public defender agencies are overwhelmed and underfunded.

    There is no mandate to provide attorneys in the area of civil court including, but not limited to, divorce, child support, bankruptcy and the civil side of domestic violence complaints. In reality, in order to provide free legal services to all individuals wanting them, we’d only think that “entitlement” programs such as medicare were huge.

    I don’t know the answer in this litigious society. BTW, in my experience parents are afforded attorneys in child protection matters if they cannot afford one. It is such a serious situation that the Courts appoint counsel if one is not assigned from a public defender agency. Most attorneys I have run into in that venue are very good – overwhelmed, yes, but dedicated.

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  2. Hi Marsha! Looking forward to Next Wednesday! In response to your comment, the problem appears to be not so much that attorneys can’t be had, but that they aren’t utilized. According to Legal Services Corp., 80% of the defendants who are eligible for their service, don’t use it. This could be due to education – people are unaware that the option exists. Also, I’m reading about cases where – even in major felonies – the defendant isn’t given a court appointed lawyer due to budget related policies. In his book, Butler also stated that overzealous prosecutors will often manipulate the situation so that a poor defendant either doesn’t get representation, or gets inferior representation. So, even though the right is guaranteed, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is observed in all cases.

    Thanks for the comment, and like I said – I’m looking forward to learning a lot at the Symposium.

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