How to Improve Legal Representation among Incarcerated African Americans

While the law guarantees every citizen the right to a court-appointed attorney in the event that they are arrested, the law does not guarantee an effective attorney. There are two simple ways to improve the quality of legal representation, which will help protect the rights of under-represented minorities, such as Latinos and African-Americans.

The purpose of a public defender is to provide legal representation to those who cannot afford to hire a defense attorney. Since hiring a defense attorney is cost prohibitive to most middle and lower-class Americans, many who are incarcerated have no choice but to utilize the services of a public defender.

Unfortunately, this means that most public defenders are faced with a workload that severely impacts their ability to be effective legal representation. It is not uncommon for an incarcerated individual to meet with his or her court-appointed attorney only once or twice before going in front of a judge. Quite frequently, a person may be jailed for weeks before even getting a chance to discuss their case with a public defender, and when this meeting does occur it rarely lasts longer than ten minutes. The end result is fast-food justice; hardly a situation someone wants to be in when incarcerated. When coupled with the bias which many public defenders hold against minority inmates, it is easy to see how many minorities never get a fair shot at justice.

Because of the enormous workload placed on a public defender, every one of his cases is in jeopardy. With so many pre-trial motions to file, it is inevitable that a public defender will occasionally make a mistake; a mistake that can add years to a prison sentence. Just as there is a limit to how many balls a juggler can juggle, there is a limit to how many cases a public defender can handle. Sooner or later, a ball will be dropped.

The obvious solution is to decrease the workload of a public defender by hiring more public defenders. How would county government know when it’s time to hire more defenders? The answer would involve monitoring the amount of time which a public defender spends with an inmate. Once there is official documentation of how much (or little) time an incarcerated individual has to discuss his case with a public defender, an argument can be made for the hiring of additional public defenders.

The second way to improve the quality of representation is to monitor the effectiveness of a public defender. This can be done by issuing a “report card” to those who may need the services of a public defender. If an inmate is assigned a public defender who has recieved a failing grade when it comes to adequately arguing his or her clients’ cases, the inmate would be given the right to request new representation. Under the current system, requesting a change of legal counsel is a tedious and time-consuming process. Rating the effectiveness of each public defender would streamline this process, saving taxpayer money and improving the quality of legal representation to those who need it most.