Could meaningful criminal justice reform finally be on the way? It seems possible.
The latest sign of progress came this morning, when the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against Fresno County, California, alleging that its public defenders are “shouldering caseloads that make it impossible for even the most skilled attorneys to provide meaningful and effective representation to their indigent clients.” As a result, it argues that these defendants are being “systematically denied their constitutional rights to meaningful representation,” as clearly provided in the sixth amendment.
An average public defender in the county handles 612 cases a year, according to the lawsuit. The National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, which consists of federal legal guidelines, state that the absolute maximum should be 150 per year, per attorney.
The new lawsuit comes less than a month after the group filed a separate class action suit against the state of Idaho for the exact same allegations.
The ACLU's two lawsuits are part of a much larger bipartisan movement centered around reforming fair process and sentencing standards—Sixth Amendment issues that disproportionately affect people of color and the poor.
The movement has even attracted the Koch Brothers, the biggest names in conservative fundraising circles, to the cause. Last October, Koch Industries gave a six-figure grant to support efforts by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ (NACDL) address what it calls the nation’s public defense “crisis.”
“I think what we’re seeing is a consensus on criminal justice reform emerge,” Norman Reimer, executive director of the NACDL, told Fusion. “President Obama just commuted some sentences [this week], and he has gotten support on those efforts from [the Koch brothers]. I think the old formula of ‘we gotta be tough on crime’ is giving way to a much more broad view that we actually have to be smart about what we do with respect to crime.”
“We’ve been working on indigent defense reform for a long, long time, but [the Kochs'] support has allowed us to increase the work that we are doing in that area,” Reimer said.
The conservative viewpoint on the criminal justice reform emphasizes that spending more on public defenders and less on massive prison populations will decrease the size of government overall, which is perfectly in line with the conservative worldview.
Notably, the Senate Judiciary Committee held its first-ever meeting on the right to counsel for indigent (poor) defendants who are charged with misdemeanors in May. The meeting was convened by Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, who said at the time: “These constitutional violations cause serious repercussions… It hurts [defendants]. It hurts the economy. It hurts all of us.”
In a joint op-ed released last week, Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries, endorsed a new bipartisan bill aimed at reducing “America’s ballooning, costly and ultimately unjust federal sentencing and corrections system.”
Other major events have spurred further action and dialogue. A few short days after Kalief Browder, who served three years on Riker's Island waiting to be convicted for a crime, committed suicide, Republican presidential hopeful Rand Paul urged more members of his party to speak up about the injustice, in addition to offering condolences to Bowder's family.
"If we become the party that cares about the Sixth Amendment as much as we do the Second Amendment, we’re going to dominate," Paul said.
Browder's case, which received nationwide attention, ignited passions and has already brought about a proposed reform of New York City's cash bail system, laid out last week by Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat.
President Obama seems to have latched onto the thread. "Over the last few years a lot of people have become aware of the inequities in the criminal justice system," Obama said in a video in which he announced the commutation of 46 inmates on Monday. "Right now, with our overall crime rate and incarceration rate both falling, we're at a moment when some good people in both parties, Republicans and Democrats and folks all across the country, are coming up with ideas to make the system work smarter and better."
Continuing in that stride, on Obama called on members of Congress to reform federal sentencing regulations while giving a speech at the NAACP’s annual convention in Philadelphia on Tuesday.
Later this week, Obama will become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.
“You know, having the world’s largest prison population is really not good for the country,” said the NACDL’s Reimer.
That much is clear. But now there’s reason to be optimistic that Washington is finally opening its eyes to the obvious.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.