It’s MLK Day again and the familiar lament of Dr. King’s words echo through our consciousness. Yet, almost half a century on from his sacrifices and his labor, his words remain unheeded and his dream unrealized.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
We need just one modern day example to understand the pervasiveness of injustice and the long reach that it has. A week ago, public defenders in New Orleans started refusing cases. They are so overburdened, they claim, that they cannot ethically accept representation, because to do so would violate their professional rules and the US Constitution. The ACLU has sued, naturally, not because it thinks that the NOLA PD office is wrong – but rather that they are right and local and state government must be forced to properly fund indigent defense.
This is not unique to NOLA, of course. Story after story about indigent defense highlights the lack of the funding and the overwhelming crush of cases which attorneys barely struggle to juggle, forget handle effectively and zealously.
Let’s look at it from a chronological fashion, somewhat:
- Racially unjust policing policies unfairly target minority/underprivileged areas
- Minority youths are more likely to get arrested
- Cash bonds are set for these defendants most of which are unrealistically high
- Since they cannot post these onerous bonds, they remain locked up in jail.
- Being locked up, they get kicked out of school, lose their jobs, their housing, their family connections. Some lose their children.
- They are greeted by an overworked public defender since most cannot hire private counsel.
- Despite the best of intentions the public defender does not have the time or the resources to properly devote to each individual case.
- In some misdemeanor cases, judges and prosecutors pressure defendants into accepting sweetheart “one-day only” pleas.
- Faced with the prospect of middling representation and continued incarceration, a significant number of defendants accept these pleas to secure their release.
- Guilt or innocence is not a consideration.
- They are released, but with a record, the damage already done.
- Having lost their job or housing, now with a record, reacquiring those is more difficult.
- Point 1 above ensures their continuing contact with the criminal justice system, this time coupled with the need to commit crime out of desperation or lack of options.
- This time, saddled with a record, offers are higher and more vindictive.
- This time, the lawyer’s resources are still minuscule, thus creating a presumption of offers being more likely to be accepted.
- On and on and on.
There are, of course, things to be done. But it won’t come from the defense community. It won’t come from minority activists. It’ll come from the ruling middle class; it’ll come from everyone waking up and realizing that our policies have destroyed entire generations.
It’ll come when we heed these words of Dr. King:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.