Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Shining a Light on the Crisis of Indigent Defense

By Marc Schindler
JPI Executive Director

This week 60 Minutes featured a story detailing the crisis in indigent defense in New Orleans, Louisiana. In a city where public defenders have been under-resourced and overwhelmed for decades, the situation has reached a breaking point.

Following years of budget cuts to the office of the public defender, the city’s chief public defender, Derwyn Bunton, has now gone on record stating that his office is not able to provide a constitutionally adequate defense for too many of their clients. While Bunton and his team of attorneys had been doing all they could to zealously advocate on behalf of their clients for years – despite a shoestring budget – the load simply became too much to bare while striving to ensure that everyone receives fair treatment by the justice system. 

Having served 20 years ago as a public defender in Baltimore, where I experienced crushing caseloads and saw firsthand how the system fails to deliver justice, I know that we can and must do better. I had the privilege of working with Derwyn Bunton on juvenile justice issues in Louisiana, and I know that his decision to stop accepting cases was not done lightly, but with the same strong and unyielding commitment to serving his clients that he’s shown his entire career. 

As I consider the dire situation in New Orleans, and reflect on JPI celebrating our 20th anniversary this year, I am reminded of our work on this critical issue and our efforts to shine a light on the significant challenges facing public defenders around the country. JPI’s 2011 report, System Overload: The Cost of Under-Resourcing Public Defense, concluded that overloaded public defense systems result in more prison time for people across the country, and less justice. 

According to System Overload, 73 percent of county-based public defender offices lacked the requisite number of attorneys to meet caseload standards; 23 percent of these offices had less than half of the necessary attorneys to meet caseload standards. JPI’s report found that public defense systems across the country are overburdened, and showed how the busting-at-the-seams systems affect state and county budgets, the lives of those behind bars, the impact on their families, and the challenges of re-entering communities after serving time. We further looked at why dedicated public defenders – like Derwyn Bunton and his staff in New Orleans -- do not have enough time to conduct thorough investigations, or meet with and provide quality representation for their clients. Not surprisingly, in most of these systems the great majority of clients are low-income and people of color – contributing to very troubling racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

National standards recommend that public defenders handle no more than 150 felony, 400 misdemeanor, 200 juvenile, 200 mental health, or 25 appeals per year. Only 12 percent of county public defender offices with more than 5,000 cases per year had enough lawyers to meet caseload standards. Nearly 60 percent of county-based public defender offices do not have caseload limits or the authority to refuse cases due to excessive caseloads. This lack of authority is particularly evident in larger offices with higher caseloads.

With an increasing overload of cases, lack of quality defense and a shortage of resources, JPI made the case that justice is not being served and the wellbeing of millions of people is at stake. We called for reform to the public defense system in System Overload, and we will continue to challenge policymakers to make investments to ensure a fairer, more effective justice system for all. If we want to have a justice system that meets constitutional muster, we must ensure that the 6th Amendment right to counsel isn’t just words on paper, but becomes a reality in courtrooms across our country. Until that happens, we can’t honestly say that justice is being served in many cities and towns across America.





Tuesday, March 21, 2017

How “Raising the Age” Is Transforming Youth Justice

By Marcy Mistrett and Marc Schindler
Campaign for Youth Justice CEO and JPI Executive Director
This piece originally appeared on Open Society Foundations' blog
Two teen boys in orange uniforms

Over the past decade, advocates have successfully challenged the boundaries of how states define childhood in the context of criminal law. According to the Campaign for Youth Justice, which supports these reforms, the number of states that automatically prosecute 16- or 17-year-olds in the adult criminal justice system has been cut in half, from 14 to just 7.

There are now about half as many youths automatically being handled in the adult system. This is good news for states around the country. Juvenile crime has continued to fall, costs have been kept in check, and thousands of youth have been spared the dangers that come from being placed in adult jails and prisons.

Today, just seven states still automatically handle 16- or 17-year-olds (or both) in the adult criminal justice system, but these states are all currently considering changes as well. In some of the states contemplating raising the age, there are concerns that it will cost too much and juvenile courts will be overwhelmed. Similar concerns were initially expressed in those places that raised the age over the past decade.

A new report by the Justice Policy Institute, Raising the Age: Shifting to a More Effective Juvenile Justice System, addresses these concerns by showing that states which have moved teenagers out of the adult justice system and into the youth justice system have done so in a cost effective and safe way.

The report found that in states like Connecticut, Illinois, and Massachusetts—which had strategies in place to reduce their reliance on expensive youth facilities even before they raised the age—juvenile-corrections costs were kept in check as they began to serve older teenagers. Since it can cost more than $100,000 a year to incarcerate a teenager, shifting to practices that keep more youth at home has allowed states to reallocate resources in more cost-effective ways, reserving the most expensive out-of-home options for the small number of youth who are a serious risk to public safety.

In Illinois, initial concerns that new courtrooms and attorneys would be needed to handle thousands of youth ultimately evaporated, as the state was able to manage the change with existing resources while also closing three costly youth facilities.

There, as in other states that adopted better youth justice policies and raised the age, juvenile crime declined more than the national average. Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy observed that his state saw lower adult crime and imprisonment rates after raising the age to 18, saving tens of millions of dollars. Based on these results, Governor Malloy is now calling on the Connecticut legislature to raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction to 21.
As with almost every facet of America’s justice system, it is clear that this is a racial justice issue as well. For example, in New York, North Carolina, and Michigan, each of which is contemplating raising the age, young people of color are grossly overrepresented in the justice system.

In New York State, eight out of ten people sentenced to prison are people of color, and nine out of ten young people sentenced to prison from New York City are young people of color. In North Carolina, black youth account for 62 percent of the young people prosecuted in the adult criminal system and are nine times more likely than white youth to receive an adult prison sentence. In Michigan in 2012, 59 percent of youth who were prosecuted in adult court were black, even though they only made up 18 percent of the youth population statewide.

Knowing that youth of color are disproportionately impacted should provide even more of a sense of urgency, and we have an obligation to implement policies that will treat all youth fairly while at the same time making the most effective use of taxpayer dollars, especially given that the vast majority—80–95 percent, depending on the state—of 16- and 17-year-olds arrested in these states are picked up for nonviolent offenses.

We should be doing everything we can to ensure that when a young person has a brush with the law, we increase the likelihood that they can get on the right track, making sure that they are safe and receiving the types of supports and opportunities that anyone would want for their own child. Treating children as children, in a developmentally appropriate juvenile justice system—not in an adult system that puts youth at great risk of harm and leads to more crime—is the right policy for all communities.