This week, Senator Elizabeth Warren released her criminal justice reform plan, illustrating just how well she understands the fundamental problems with the criminal justice system. As a public defender in Manhattan for the past decade, I have had a firsthand look at its systemic dysfunction for years and its disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities.
In 1963, the Supreme Court decided Gideon v. Wainwright, where the Court unanimously ruled that defendants facing criminal charges have a right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, even if they are unable to afford their own attorneys.
Yet, it has always been unpopular to fund public defender offices. Many ask, “Why would I fund a lawyer to help get a rapist or a murderer out of prison?” not recognizing that our constitution depends on effective representation on both sides.
The overwhelming majority of people who we as public defenders represent are those who may have done something wrong, but more likely if at all, it’s something relatively minor. And now they’re sitting in jail on bail they can’t afford to make, they’ve lost their housing, their job. Families like Tera’s are torn apart and communities are ruined.
Public defenders play a critical role in ensuring fairness in implementing the Gideon decision. Warren understands that public defenders are overworked, underpaid and drowning in our caseloads. In her plan, she says, “if we expect fair adversarial trials, we need to balance resources on both sides of each case in every jurisdiction.” The plan — which will fund federal public defenders, provide access to training and expand targeted grant funding for public defenders at the state level — will help provide effective defense for our clients.
Warren's proposal would reduce caseloads, thereby allowing public defenders to try more cases, increase investigations and reduce unfair pre-trial detention.
The current system makes a mockery of our sacred principle "innocent until proven guilty." We have dozens, often close to 100 cases, at any given time. This means we often have no time to personally do factual investigations. We are often engaged in trials at a time when we would otherwise be trying another case, which means our clients — unable to post cash bail — sit in jail before ever having been convicted of a crime.
Warren's plan calls for true, comprehensive reform — however, reform is impossible without ensuring that the poorest among us have access to counsel. So, to truly enact reform, public defenders need the resources that best situate them to defend those who have been abandoned by a system designed to dispose of them.
With Warren's plan, we would reduce expenditures and live in a fairer, safer and more just world.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Elizabeth Warren’s plan puts our hands on that arc and bends it towards justice.
Eliza Orlins began in 2009 as a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, Criminal Defense Practice, in Manhattan. As a public defender for nearly a decade, she has dedicated herself to the zealous defense of some of society’s most vulnerable individuals.