By: Norris Z. McManus
Copyright © 2018 Norris Z. McManus
Everyone heard tales of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy during childhood. As we grew older, a realization dawned within our young minds that in our innocence belief in those fallacies were errant, or worded another way, we believed a lie.
Expanding upon the protections found in the 6th Amendment, the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to “Equal Protection of the Law” for each citizen. These mandates obligate government to afford each citizen equal access to the courts and ensure each is provided equal standing before the law. Do we blindly believe the mandates of the 6th and 14th Amendments as we similarly embraced the fallacies of our youth? Is treatment equal when those who seek to prosecute a citizen possess far superior funding appropriations from government when juxtaposed against the systemic inadequate funding Public Defenders receive?
Like countless others, I embraced the lie of “Equal Protection.” Since childhood many of us were taught our courts and criminal justice systems were fair for all, including the poor; the lie became known when I was snared by the vast overreach of law enforcement. It soon became clear the promise of “Equal Protection” was being flushed down the toilet upon seeing, first hand, how the lack of meaningful legal representation is seldom given to those who cannot afford to purchase it.
Most citizens facing felony charges lack the financial resources to ensure “Equal Protection” via retaining a reputable criminal defense attorney. Because of their economic shortcomings, the working-class poor have no option but to rely upon under-funded, understaffed and overworked Public Defender systems. This is the point where the scales of justice tip in favor of the state, away from the accused, as the lie is exposed.
From coast to coast the Public Defender system in the United States is in crisis. The crisis subverts the cornerstone of Democratic values when “Equal Protection” slides headlong into the bottomless abyss of being that lie, as found in the state of Missouri. On average, the Missouri Public Defender system allocates a paltry $356 per indigent client. Missouri resources limit the average time spent with a client to 8.7 hours for serious non-homicide cases. These staggering nuggets of data finds Missouri earning the dubious distinction of being ranked 49th out of 50 states for monetary allocations allotted to each Public Defender client and falling 11.3 hours shy of the minimum ABA recommended time per client (1).
A 2015 review of the Louisiana Public Defenders Board revealed that 85% of felony defendants in New Orleans used the services of the Public Defender due to their limited income status. The annual 2015 budget for the parish Public Defender was a third of what the local District Attorney’s office received (2). The lie of equal treatment continues unabated in Louisiana.
Similar data from Clayton County, Georgia (just south of Atlanta) parallels the New Orleans dilemma. According to the 2017 budgetary allocation for all Clayton County departments, the District Attorney’s office received 45.8% more allocations for their “general funding” than did the county Public Defender’s office for their total operating budget in the same 2017 fiscal year. In addition to this shameful disparity, the 2017 fiscal budget for the District Attorney received a .95% increase over and above their 2016 budget, while the county scaled back the Public Defender’s office budget by a .95% decrease. Yet another alarming disparity finds the Clayton County Public Defender struggling to keep qualified staff who leave for higher paying jobs in the private sector (3). “Equal Protection?”
If we dig further into the lie, a stark truth reveals that 94-97% of all criminal cases in the United States are adjudicated via plea-bargain (4). A vile collateral consequence of this practice is the lack of equal protection in the plea bargain process where an untold number of innocents have little choice but to accept a guilty plea (5). When considering the rate of conviction hovers around 95% for cases taken to trial, what choice does an indigent individual have? Either plead to a crime they did not commit or take a chance and go to trial with a poorly funded, understaffed Public Defender who may have invested a mere two or three hours in talking with the accused and wind up with far more prison time than what a plea bargain offer consisted of (6)? The result of the lie finds an estimated 100,000-240,000 innocents locked up in our prisons, as read in a recent Chicago Tribune editorial by the renowned author, and licensed attorney, John Grisham (7). The thoughts of Mr. Grisham are supported by various studies (8).
In conclusion, as our society scurries about chasing bobbles and other trivialities, how many people shall be ground into the dust by the “Equal Protection” fallacy? What if your son or daughter believes the lie only to discover the truth far too late as did one Ohio prisoner, Christina Williams, #W079027? Her belief in the lie yielded a tragic outcome of a life sentence when ample evidence to support her innocence was never presented by the Public Defenders appointed to defend Christina. Is it any wonder many in our nation view the Easter Bunny as having more substance and truth than found within the fallacy of “Equal Protection” within the 6th and 14th Amendments?