The first time I saw Gideon’s Army, Dawn Porter‘s documentary about three public defenders fighting a lonely battle in the American South, I watched impassively, even as anger and sadness swirled within me. The second time I did so–yesterday, in a classroom with the students in my Philosophy of Law class–I blinked back tears. (More anon on how the company we keep in our movie-watching experiences changes our perceptions of the work on display.)
I could see horrified expressions in the classroom; I could sense these young men and women were coming to realize–if only in part–the true dimensions of the cruel and inhumane penal system that destroys so many lives everyday. When the lights came on, I asked for reactions. “It’s a disgrace” was the first one. I didn’t need to ask what was.
Here is how it goes. Roughly. If you are arrested, you will be thrown in jail. To be released before you are tried, bond or bail must be posted. If you cannot afford those, you remain in jail–while the remnants of your life, your family and your career for instance, go to seed. Once you go to trial, if you cannot afford legal representation, a public defender will be appointed for you. (Thanks to the Sixth Amendment and Gideon vs. Wainright–the history of which you can find in Anthony Lewis‘ Gideon’s Trumpet, legal counsel is now every defendant’s constitutional right.)
Unfortunately, the numbers are against those accused of crimes. Twelve million Americans are arrested every year; many of them will be represented by an ‘army’ of fifteen thousand public defenders. They are overworked–some have as many as 180 cases on their plate; they are underpaid–they struggle to make rent and pay off loans. Sometimes their clients are grateful, sometimes not. They must navigate through a system that, contrary to its lofty ideals of ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ operates instead on the dictum ‘guilty until proven innocent.’ They are attempting to rescue lives from being thrown into the waste heap that is the American prison system; very few institutions seem to support them. Some institutional structures of the society they are embedded in–like poverty and racism, and of course, that monster, the war on drugs–work against them at every step. (So do some matters of legal procedure.) Unsurprisingly many public defenders leave for greener pastures. Who can blame them?
Justice is hard to obtain under these circumstances. Even the guilty do not seem to deserve the savageness of their penalties: Five years for robbing a man of ninety-six dollars? Ten years–maybe even a life sentence–with no possibility of parole for armed robbery? But it gets worse. Sometimes–too often–the innocent plead guilty to crimes they never committed, unwilling and unable to go to trial and take the risk they might go away for even longer. Let the horror of that statement sink in for a second: an innocent person might be condemned to spend years of their life in a jail, a venue where they will be subjected to violence of many different stripes, only to emerge with their lives shattered, their future prospects irreparably damaged.
This system, this supposed dispenser of justice and keeper of the peace, is anything but. It is immoral and criminal. It does not deserve our allegiance.