By Sam Daponte ’21
2010 marked 219 years since the Sixth Amendment—which states that, in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial—was ratified. And yet, that Spring, at age sixteen, Kalief Browder of the Bronx began his three-year-long imprisonment at Rikers Island Prison which included 700 days in solitary confinement, without ever standing trial. Why was he in the violent Robert N. Davoren Center (RNDC) at Rikers Island? For allegedly stealing a backpack.
Browder’s case gained national attention when various articles were published documenting his horrifying experience at Rikers. Despite working hard to receive his General Educational Development (GED) and enrolling in community college, Browder’s experience at Rikers Island continued to affect his mental health and led him to take his own life a mere two years after his release. Though Browder’s case has fostered national attention, there are countless other inmates around the country whom, like Browder, the criminal justice system has utterly failed.
Around the country, the rights of criminal defendants like Browder are infringed consistently. Approximately 80% of all criminal defendants in the US are unable to afford a lawyer, hence they are most likely unable to afford bail as well. The result: public defenders are facing soaring caseloads, and, with flatlining budgets in numerous states, the public defender system is in complete shambles. In various states, including Colorado, Missouri, Rhode Island, and Louisiana, studies found that the typical public defender has a workload that exceeds far beyond what they should have in order to provide an adequate defense. The American Bar Association said after a study in Missouri was released that excessive workloads for public defenders around the country make “a mockery of the constitutional right to counsel.”
In 2017, James J. Brady, a federal district judge in Louisiana, wrote that “budget shortages are no excuse to violate the United States Constitution.” But since Judge Brady’s necessary critique in 2017, circumstances have only gotten worse in Louisiana. For six straight years, Louisiana's public defense system has been considered to be in crisis. Even before the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, a severe lack of funding was drowning the system and the consequences were damaging.
The public defense system has not fundamentally changed in the last fifteen years, eroding communal trust in criminal justice proceedings according to Chief District Defender Derwyn Bunton. “What our criminal legal system is plagued by in Louisiana is a lack of equity,” Bunton explained, “that produces a shortage of lawyers, a shortage of resources to represent poor people going through the system and puts people at risk for wrongful conviction.” The financial blow dealt by COVID-19 could threaten the public defender system even more, due to its already unstable revenue stream. In Louisiana, public defender districts largely rely on court-generated fines and fees, such as conviction costs and traffic ticket payments. In fact, 67% of the funding stems from criminal fines and fees. The Sixth Amendment Center referred to Louisiana as the only state with a statewide indigent defense system that relies to a large extent on locally generated non-governmental funding for the right to counsel. As COVID-19 has shuttered courthouses across the state or severely restricted their services, those critical fines and fees are now not being collected.
In Missouri, the situation is nearly as grave, with both criminal defendants and public defenders facing the consequences of the state's broken system. Anywhere from fifteen to eighteen percent of the public defenders are leaving each year. Lawyers sometimes take on this work at the risk of their mental health and law licenses, with no legal immunity from civil liability or disciplinary action for the ethical violations they are forced to commit, according to Katie Moore for The Kansas City Star. David Carroll, executive director of the Sixth Amendment Center, said “when we have indigent defense systems that are simply a conveyor belt to put people into jail, there’s distrust in communities.” This plight should be brought to the center of attention in the discussion for criminal justice reform. States like Missouri, Louisiana, and a slew of others have made a mockery of proper criminal justice, the public defender system, and the constitutional rights that should be granted to every citizen.
Nonetheless, a glimmer of hope stems from New York. Kalief Browder’s story sparked national outrage, and New York State lawmakers took notice. In 2013, about 1,500 people were in New York City jails for more than a year awaiting trial. Finally, in 2018, the state assembly passed ‘Kalief’s Law’ which acted to amend the criminal procedure law, in relation to time limits for a speedy trial. The city also established the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, chaired by former Chief Judge of New York State Jonathan Lippman. In April 2017, the Commission issued A More Just New York City, a groundbreaking evidence-based set of recommendations for improving specifically New York City’s criminal justice system, including closing the dysfunctional jail complex on Rikers Island, significantly reducing the number of people in jail, and shifting to a modern system of smaller facilities located near the borough criminal courts. Furthermore, when New York City public defenders called for the city budget to boost salaries for legal-services workers, the city met their demands. In 2019, New York City’s public defenders had their pay raised to match the salaries of the lawyers who represent the city. Lisa Schreibersdorf, executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services, stated that “with this agreement to fund salary parity for public defenders, New York City has shown it values the communities we serve and the work of our attorneys who fight tirelessly to guarantee justice for our clients.”
New York has surely made progress in criminal justice reform since the tragedy of Kalief Browder and many others who have experienced a similar struggle. Nevertheless, there is much more that needs to be done in New York and around the country.