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News: Bare-Bones Criminal Justice

Our system isn't blind to race or poverty

By Margo Pierce · April 2nd, 2008 · News
  Stephen Bright told a Northern Kentucky University Law School gathering that he�s worried about whether the legal system is fair for all Americans.
Joe Lamb

Stephen Bright told a Northern Kentucky University Law School gathering that he�s worried about whether the legal system is fair for all Americans.

If you're not white or you're poor, you won't get a fair shot at being innocent until proven guilty in our criminal justice system, according to the experience of attorney Stephen Bright. On March 25 Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights (www.schr.org) in Atlanta, explained his views to students and others at Northern Kentucky University's Salmon P. Chase School of Law.

"What I want to talk about is fairness," Bright said. "It's something I hope that everybody who graduates from this law school will agree (with). If we're going to have a system of justice that's going to take away the liberty and even the lives of people, then that system has to be a fair system. And that system can't be influenced by things like race and poverty."

As a child, Bright lived in the segregated South and watched black kids being bussed to their own school, which typically meant one room for all eight grades. While he acknowledged that a lot has changed, he said many things haven't and that's why he works for changes in our criminal justice system.

"When I'm in a community I'll see that the school board now may have some people of color on it," he said of Georgia. "The man who represents me in Congress today was beaten to within an inch of his life when he tried to cross a bridge in southern Alabama, John Lewis, and today he is one of the most powerful members of the Congress of the United States.

"I go into courts where nothing has changed since the 1950s, where the judge is white, the prosecutors are white, the court-appointed defense lawyers are white, where the only person of color is the person sitting at the defense table whose life or liberty is on the line.

Even in the communities that have substantial African-American populations ... all of the members of the jury are white."

That contrast is startling enough, but Bright went on to say that on an arraignment day it looks "like a slave ship has docked outside the court house." In the moments before the judge hears their cases, the men will meet their court-appointed lawyer, and for many it'll be the first and last time they encounter their legal counsel. The lawyer tells the man what the plea bargain is, and the deal is done.

Describing this process as "meet 'em and plead 'em," Bright said, "It's not called justice by anybody. ... The criminal justice system is the part of our society that has been least effected by America's Civil Right movement. The question here, of course, is: Are we going to let this kind of thing go on?

"Your courts don't have credibility and the verdicts the courts deliver don't have legitimacy when people see that some part of the community is excluded from participating on the basis of their race. I think that's something we really have to worry about in this country today."

�We�re destroying people, families, communities�
Pointing out that prison policies aren't applied equitably across races, Bright said if current trends continue, one of every three black men will be in prison, in jail, on parole or on probation. The consequences will be devastating.

"We're destroying people," he said. "We're destroying families. We're destroying communities. The question is raised from time to time, would we have these kinds of criminal justice policies if they had the impact on the white community that they do on the black community?"

Bright also noted that "your rights don't mean anything unless you can assert them." Not being able to afford a lawyer if you end up in jail means "they might as well not exist for you."

Citing a number of death penalty cases in which a public defender assigned to a case was drunk on the job, another who had 37 days to prepare a defense without access to an investigator and another who fell asleep during the trial, Bright said life-or-death decisions aren't being handled well for indigent clients.

"Do we have cases talking about a surgeon sleeping through a surgery?" Bright asked. "Bus drivers sleeping through driving their bus? In my experience, most people who sleep on the job get fired.

"This guy (the sleeping public defender) tried a death penalty case and got appointed to other cases after it. That tells you something about how much we care about the right to counsel for some people, even in death penalty cases."

Quoting several U.S. Supreme Court rulings on death penalty cases challenging the adequacy of representation by public defenders, Bright challenged the ability of the current criminal justice system to provide the right to legal representation. He singled out Judge Richard Posner on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, who suggested having "bare-bones" representation for criminal cases might be a good idea as a means to avoid the possibility that a guilty person might get off and spare the country from wasting resources on prosecuting cases.

Ryan Turner, a graduating senior who was instrumental in bringing Bright to NKU, said he has every intention of doing public defender work.

"I firmly believe that there is no greater calling than to help those who can't help themselves," Turner said. "Given that our criminal justice system is continuing to fail the powerless of our society, someone must demand that we neglect this constitutional embarrassment no more. ... The way you do that is to expose the irrefutable injustices to the majority and thereby morally convict all those who've ignored its existence. Through that, reform can and does happen." ©



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