Moderator Phyllis Mann, senior program associate at the Sixth Amendment Center, began the conversation on “Gideon’s Legacy” by noting that the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright—that a person would never go to jail without the assistance of counsel—is unfulfilled almost 50 years later. She then asked the panelists to describe how the public defense system relates to the rest of the problems throughout the United States criminal justice system.
According to Norman Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the right to counsel is both a consequence and a cause of the challenges our justice system faces. A large gap in research, said Reimer, is how nonviolent actions like drug use, unpaid traffic tickets, and homelessness might be reclassified out of the criminal justice system and what effects this would have on public safety.
Jonathan Rapping, president and founder of the non-profit Gideon’s Promise, agreed with Reimer that overcriminalization and a lack of public defense were large issues, but he also added that advocates for reform must tackle a cultural challenge. For Rapping, too many within the criminal justice system have accepted that people who rely on public defenders will receive a very low standard of justice.
Continuing the discussion on discrepancies in how justice is delivered to the least fortunate, Kim Ball, of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice, stressed the urgent need to ensure that the criminal justice system delivers on the principle of fairness. As a potential solution to this problem, University of Maryland law professor Doug Colbert identified the opportunity for investment in resources during pretrial.
Doing such work in the pretrial phase is Rick Jones. Jones, executive director of the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, stressed the importance of public defenders being involved before a person is arrested, communicating and collaborating with local law enforcement, and, finally, restoring rights to restored citizens and continuing to connect with them after incarceration.
Overall, the panel pointed towards understanding the public safety effects of reclassifying nonviolent activities out of the criminal justice system, investing further in the pretrial phase, and challenging complicity around how the least fortunate experience the justice system as paths forward to delivering on Gideon’s promise. The Charles Koch Foundation is requesting proposals on this topic as well as others regarding criminal justice and policing reform.