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Impoverished & Incarcerated: The Poor and the Criminal Justice System

“All are presumed innocent until proven guilty” is a phrase commonly employed when articulating the principles of the American criminal justice system. Unfortunately, reality falls short of this idealistic statement. I spent this summer interning at a public defender’s office in southeastern Kentucky. On my first day of interning with the Department of Public Advocacy in London, Kentucky, I witnessed, in court, an elderly, sickly woman who was deemed to be a “low flight risk.” She was eligible for bail, but she could not afford her bail due to her indigence. It took some pleading, but eventually the state waived her bail fee. This happened time and again in issues regarding bail and the manner in which defendants were treated by the court.  On multiple occasions, we had clients who dressed their best for court, provided their means, but were still chastised by the judge. It was evident that there was a chasm of distrust between the court and its impoverished defendants.

” ‘Jim’ was a man that was charged with multiple homicides over a decade ago. He has been in the county jail since then, awaiting trial,” writes Marchese who interned with the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy in 2017.

If I could only make one assertion about defendants within the American criminal justice system it would be this: It is better to be guilty and rich than poor and innocent. Indigent clients are not afforded the same opportunities as a wealthy person would have within this system. The rich can afford the best counsel, court fees, and bail. The Department of Public Advocacy (DPA) in London, Kentucky, covered five counties: Laurel, Clay, Whitley, Leslie, and Knox. The office of the DPA consisted of a dozen attorneys, a mitigation specialist, an investigator, and two paralegals. Despite being one of the largest public defender offices in the region, staff still could not keep up with the demand presented to them. Public Defender’s offices across the nation are woefully underfunded and overworked. They exist as the only safety net of the indigent for legal representation. Attorneys at my office took on an average of 400+ cases per year. This is typical of the average public defender. Moreover, the attorneys themselves are underpaid compared to their prosecutorial counterparts. According to the Department of Justice, Public Defenders, on average, are allocated less than ten percent of spending in the criminal justice system. Despite the comparatively low investment, public defender services are the only thing standing between indigent clients and a system built to imprison them.

There was one client in particular that I developed an affinity for. For confidentiality reasons, I will call him “Jim.” Jim was a man that was charged with multiple homicides over a decade ago. He has been in the county jail since then, awaiting trial. I regularly visited with him and went over the case with attorneys at the office. Jim was an uneducated man with a painful story. His family lived only miles away from the jail yet they hardly ever visited him. He was a brash, blunt man, but there was always a hint of hope, kindness, and appreciation whenever I would go visit him and explain the steps we were taking to help him in his case. If it was not for me and one other office intern who visited him, he would not be afforded this opportunity of nearly daily communication on the legal proceedings of his case. The principal reason for this is that this public defender’s office in quaint, rural London, Kentucky, was grotesquely overworked. The attorneys and staff within the office were incredible professionals, always working in a noble manner for their clients, but, no matter how hard they worked, how creative they were, how passionate they felt, the workload was overwhelming. No matter how zealous a public defender might be in defending their client, a grueling case load will eventually takes its toll. This is a travesty. A public defender is the sole metaphorical guardian for the indigent in the criminal justice system.

My experience interning in London, Kentucky, thanks to the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty, taught me a multitude of lessons, both professional and personal. This experience revealed to me the lesser known facet of the criminal justice system- that there are scores of individuals awaiting their day in court because this system is so sluggish, as evinced with my encounter with Jim.. This made me ponder a number of reforms that could be undertaken to improve our system to make it more fair and expedient. Moreover, interning with a public defender’s office augmented my professional endeavors of one day defending the indigent, be it in the realm of law or public interest. This internship afforded me a deeper understanding of others by employing empathy, patience, and an appreciation for the human condition. Lastly, the one overarching theme I noticed throughout those two months was that public defenders are underappreciated and unquestionably entitled to the same resources as their prosecutorial counterparts. They are the overlooked heroes in the criminal justice system. I too hope that one day I can affect positive change to ensure that justice for the poor is possible.


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