There is a myth that persists among criminal defendants that is well known to all of us: if you are poor, there’s a greater likelihood you’ll be found guilty of something. This myth – and a myth it is, because the rate of conviction is so damn high that you can’t honestly carve out any special class among the universe of defendants – is a steady source of amusement for the public servant.
“Man, if I had a real lawyer, I’d have gotten a dismissal already.”
“I know how this works. If I had a private lawyer, he could fight for me more, but I can’t afford one so I’m stuck with you and this crappy deal.”
Whatever you say.
The irony is that the myth “you’re guilty if you’re poor” is just a few minor edits away from being close to the truth. The reality is that in the volume-high, fund-low world of indigent defense, most people are certainly guilty of one thing: being poor.
I’m not referring to the link between poverty and crime, for which there is much to be said – despite the tortured claim put forth last year that the declining economy coincided with a declining prison population and hence there was no link, an argument that any statistician worth the paper his degree was printed on would snarkily dismiss out of hand with the acronym SSS* – and indeed much has been said, but rather to the reality that unfolds every single day in the busiest courthouses across the country.
In response to my post yesterday on the “difficulty facing public defenders” [and if you want to read a more thoughtful post on the subject, check out Gamso's], a commenter points out that what I identified as a difficult wasn’t really exclusive to public defenders. The presumption of guilt applies to all defendants. But what is special to the indigent bar is that we often have to sit by and watch clients plead guilty, without having a clue whether they are actually guilty or not and without having the opportunity to determine that.
For almost every defendant except the guy doing life on the installment plan, the single biggest motivating factor is liberty. “When can I get out?” is the paramount question. Continue reading