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Indefensible: The State Of Indigent Defense In The Era of Mass Incarceration

by Christopher Stella

Mr. Stella is a second year law student, pursuing his Juris Doctor at Elon University School of Law with an anticipated graduation date of May 2017. Christopher graduated from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro in December of 2013 with a Bachelor’s Degree in English.

"This prosecutorial process, coupled with an overzealous prosecutor in Orleans Parish, results in racial inequity in minimum and maximum sentencing," writes Stella, Elon University School of Law (2017).

“This prosecutorial process, coupled with an overzealous prosecutor in Orleans Parish, results in racial inequity in minimum and maximum sentencing,” writes Stella, Elon University School of Law (2017).

My interest in poverty studies was, largely, sparked in undergrad, having taken a course in United States Indian Policy coupled with literary analysis of biographical texts regarding forced religious conversion and displacement, along with a slate of courses in human rights. In this same time period I also worked for a homeless day center in Greensboro and for a migrant farm workers’ union. These experiences continued to color my perception and direction as I entered Elon University School of Law, where I have taken courses in Criminal Law, Humanitarian Immigration law, and Labor Law.

I spent the summer after my first year of law school at the Orleans Parish Public Defender’s office, a state-funded organization representing indigent clients in the City of New Orleans. There, I worked as a Law Clerk, researching case law, interacting with jailed clients, and writing motions for court use. Given previous experience working with impoverished clients and the well-known racial disparities in the criminal justice system, I was expecting a lack of justice and a number of bad situations for clients, but New Orleans was a shock as to degree of injustice and bad situations. In fact, the state of the criminal justice system in Louisiana is so broken that it has the highest incarceration rate in the world, followed closely by neighboring states. Regardless, the most optimistic takeaway is that there are attorneys in Orleans Parish pushing for quality justice and holistic client-care, even though they are stuck in a place that makes this task exceptionally difficult.

Funding for any public organization has been catastrophically low in the last several years, but the issue is particularly pressing when the need for which funding is slashed is constitutionally guaranteed. In my time in New Orleans, the office had its budget slashed for a second time in four years and attorneys were being furloughed. The implications of a furlough are devastating. Either the attorneys work for free or the clients suffer in jail with no counsel. As of January 2016, the office has been forced to decline representation of some potential clients, and there is now a suit against the office spearheaded by the American Civil Liberties Union for the denial of service.

Denial of service, however, is not necessarily the most pressing issue the clients faced. Orleans Parish Prison, the parish jail, is frequently cited as an extremely dangerous place and is in a general state of disrepair. In the past, leaked videos have revealed prisoners with firearms in the prison. Further, prisoners throughout the system lack healthcare, and the new jail under construction with Parish funds will do nothing to alleviate this deficit, leaving clients with dire health problems and without treatment conducive for their survival. The situation continues despite appeals for injunctive relief from the city.

The experience with the Orleans Parish Defender gave me firsthand exposure to the oppressive and prejudicial nature of mass incarceration, the reality that after Jim Crow, incarceration became a “racially unbiased” way to perpetuate racial segregation and implement a new form of chattel slavery. The state replaced the role of plantation owner. Because Thirteenth Amendment protection only applies to those who have not been convicted of a criminal act, these sentences often result in clients that have been found guilty being forced to work in an antebellum environment of agricultural field labor for no compensation and at the muzzle of a shotgun.

Further, high mandatory minimum prison sentences for relatively minor crimes disproportionately affect people of color. Mandatory minimums were implemented to curb judicial discretion in regards to race in the sentencing process. The effect, however, has been an increased prosecutorial discretion in charges, which proves problematic as the prosecutor is often adverse to the arrested client. This prosecutorial process, coupled with an overzealous prosecutor in Orleans Parish, results in racial inequity in minimum and maximum sentencing.

The positive, however, is that the office has embraced client-centered lawyering. Client-centered lawyering enables care for more than just the immediate legal issues facing the client. In Orleans Parish, the office employs investigators and social workers to ensure the health and wellness of clients, including mental healthcare and maintaining familial bonds while awaiting trial. Another key component is the humanization of clients who are otherwise dehumanized by the criminal justice system due to their educational and racial status.

Resulting directly from my experience in New Orleans working in defense of racially and economically marginalized people, I have taken a position next summer working for The Alaska Public Defender in their Fairbanks office. I will be in charge of representing racially and economically marginalized people, but with the understanding that Alaska has the highest percentage of indigenous American peoples in the United States.

Because of my courses and firsthand experiences, I am pursuing a path to become a public defender, specifically in jurisdictions with inordinately high incarceration rates and where the relationship with opposing counsel is especially contentious. After my experience with the Orleans Parish Public Defender, I intend to pursue indigent defense with a client-centered approach because, first and foremost, indigent criminal defendants are human beings deserving the same respect that we afford those who have means and those who have not been accused of a crime.


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