By Genevieve Citrin Ray*
If you were arrested and charged with a crime, would you know what to do? If you were brought into a courtroom in handcuffs, told to stand straight, look up at a judge, and listen to a prosecutor dressed in a suit make statements about your character and accusing you of a crime, would you know how to react? What if you had someone next to you, who was familiar with the process and the court actors, telling you it was okay and that s/he was there to support and advocate for you, would that change how you felt? That is the power of Gideon.
Now imagine you’re a public defender. You look up and you see a scared individual handcuffed coming towards you. Before you even grab the file and learn your client’s name the judge is asking the prosecutor to explain the charges. You don’t even have time to say hello, introduce yourself and let your client know that you will do everything you can for him. In a few minutes time, bail will be set, your client will be escorted out of the courtroom, and another individual will be brought in all before you even realize what just happened to your last client. That is the reality of Gideon.
March 18, 2018 marks the 55th anniversary of the landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright in which the Supreme Court held that the accused have a right to counsel even if they cannot afford one. Yet, in many places across the county, there is a disconnect between the power of Gideon and reality. Gideon is only achieved when public defense providers have the time, resources, experience, and compassion to devote to each person accused of a crime who faces a loss of liberty and cannot afford an attorney. In honor of the anniversary of Gideon, I want to call attention to the individuals who depend on public defense providers and to the hard working, devoted public defense providers, who often work in an overburdened system wrought with competing pressures that present challenges to providing effective representation. To public defenders, neither you nor your work goes unnoticed or unappreciated. You encourage the voiceless to have a voice and can help individuals, who may be experiencing the lowest points in their lives, believe in themselves again. You are essential to a fair justice system that ensures equality, dignity, and respect. And to the accused, don’t give up on yourself or your public defender. We may not have reached our ideal yet as is embodied in Gideon, but don’t stop striving for greatness.
I was first introduced to the work of public defense in 2009 when I started work as an investigator for the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia and where I worked for four years. Every day I saw how hard public defenders fought for clients despite many obstacles. I was honored to work at a well-resourced public defender’s office, yet still saw the reality of the pressures placed on defenders by the system that often left us feeling that there was never enough time to devote to each. I spent nearly every day in communities that were previously foreign to me. I questioned murder suspects and witnesses, traveled to public housing and other destitute areas, visited juvenile and adult jails, and I saw repeatedly the conditions in which my clients lived. I became keenly aware of the constant challenges my clients faced at every step of the criminal justice process and how consistent these challenges were for varied individuals. These commonalities raise serious questions regarding race equity, the effectiveness of the current criminal justice system, and the practices we engage in. Returning to my home in Northwest DC was a daily reminder of the imbalance of justice that existed, and still exists, in the same city a mere few miles away. The regularity at which my clients faced obstacles made an impact on me and made it all the more meaningful for me to work side-by-side public defenders to advocate on their behalf, ensuring they were treated with respect and dignity by all actors in the court room and in the justice system.
I loved the daily interactions with my clients. They are some of the most intelligent, driven, and compassionate people I have ever met and have taught me lifelong lessons. In our democratic society, underprivileged should not correlate to underrepresented; however, my experience highlighted that this is too often the case. Whether or not my client was incarcerated, regardless of guilt, the challenges in advocating for one’s rights are complicated. This underscores just how important effective representation is yet also how pervasive the obstacles of providing effective public defense are. Access to strong representation and support is critical for the accused and is essential to justice for all parties. It was because of my work at PDS with dedicated attorneys, investigators, and support staff, and my interactions with my clients, and witnessing the power of effective representation, that encouraged me to pursue a degree in public policy and motivates me today at the Justice Programs Office to work towards closing the gap between the reality of public defense and the true intention of Gideon. It is through this lens that I analyze criminal justice policies, how I brainstorm effective solutions, and how I view the justice system, social services, and individuals.
So, as we honor Gideon on March 18, I want to highlight and thank all of the public defense providers out there for your active commitment and tireless devotion to individuals and ensuring the constitutional right to counsel. Keep up the hard work, and one day, by working together, we will ensure the spirit of Gideon is realized.
*Genevieve Citrin Ray is the Senior Policy Advisor at the Justice Programs Office at American University and is the Project Director of the Right to Counsel National Campaign.