Monday, April 2, 2007

If You Aren't Guilty...

...Why were you arrested?

From a USA Today article on disarray in the New Orleans public defender system.

"State Rep. Danny Martiny, a Republican who chairs a legislative task force on indigent defense, said lawmakers have given the Orleans public defender's office an additional $20 million in the past two years. He said the Legislature, which convenes April 30, will consider a bill that reforms the state public defender system.

'I have to be honest with you: I don't think people look at the right to counsel as being a right, they look at it as a perk for the criminal,' he said. 'That makes it harder to pass through the Legislature.'"
The thought process that leads to such an outlook is, I think, really pretty simple. The Court of Public Opinion, unlike American criminal courts, isn't obligated to wait for either a guilty plea (or a variant thereof) or proof beyond a reasonable doubt before pronouncing a guilty verdict. The idea that "if you were really innocent, you wouldn't have been arrested in the first place," tends to put the cart ahead of the horse, from a legal standpoint. Although it is the courts that were intended to be the Finders of Fact in criminal cases, the common reality is that many people leave that up to police departments.

And public opinion also tends to work against people who can't afford private attorneys - who are the very people that public defenders offices are designed to protect. While a defense against a serious felony charge has the potential put even a middle-class person into rather serious financial straits (good lawyers are not cheap), in the minds of the public, the public defense system serves only the poor. The idea that being poor and being a criminal tend to go hand-in-hand (whether you see crime as an effect of being poor or as something people do because it's easier than working) is stronger in the United States than many people are prepared to give it credit for.

All of this leads to the idea, even in the absence of a prior conviction, that some people are known criminals when they go to trial, rather than when they are convicted.

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