The Brief: Law School News and Events

Advocate Says Criminal Justice System Failing the Poor

Last March we marked the 20th anniversary of the Public Service program with a birthday party of sorts.
We called it Public Interest Week.

Anthony Porter had spent 16 years on death row when Northwestern undergraduates decided to examine his case for a class project. State officials had put a stay on his execution because it was not clear whether Porter, a mentally disabled man, understood why he was going to be executed. While the state deliberated on this question, the students managed to do what police and attorneys had been incapable of: they proved that Porter did not commit the crime and got a confession from the man who did.

Jeremy Travis
©Brian Stauffer/
For noted death penalty opponent Stephen Bright, Porter’s case epitomizes how the criminal justice system has been failing abysmally for years and in the most fundamental ways. In short, the system is in critical “need of a bailout,” he said.

Bright, president and senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights, spoke about the need for reform during the law school’s first Public Interest Week, for which he was named an honorary fellow.

He said a defendant’s right to counsel is compromised because there is not enough money to provide qualified attorneys to every poor person accused of a crime.

To meet the demand, states have adopted approaches ranging from public defender systems to conscripting lawyers, regardless of whether they have criminal law expertise. In some states, a single lawyer may handle 1,200 to 1,500 cases a year, which grossly exceeds the ABA standards of 150 felonies and 300 misdemeanors per year.

Limited funding has also led states to adopt unrealistic financial criteria for eligibility to receive counsel, excluding many who cannot afford a lawyer.

The rest are herded through what Bright calls the “meet ‘em and plead ‘em system” in which clients briefly meet the lawyer in the courtroom for the first time, submit a plea, and receive a sentence from the judge, who quickly moves on to the next client. Often, that is the only representation a defendant gets, said Bright.

As bad as the situation is, he said, it’s only going to get worse with the financial crisis, which is causing deep budget cuts.

Most worrisome to Bright are double standards for rich and poor, which he believes are at odds with the principle of equal justice.

Bright called upon lawyers to be drum majors for justice and address the problem by advocating for the improvement of public defender systems and for individual clients. Like abolitionists who chipped away at slavery by helping one person escape at a time through the Underground Railroad, individual lawyers can make a difference by taking cases and counseling clients, telling their stories and speaking truth to power in courts and in communities, he said.