WIND POINT — More than 80 local attorneys, judges, politicians, community advocates and more met Thursday night to discuss an often overlooked important aspect of today’s criminal justice system — public defenders.
Currently, across the nation and right here in Racine County, public defenders average more than 400 clients per year. Add to this that since 1963, America’s prison population has gone from 217,000 to now over 2.3 million, and many would admit that the system could be run better. Some estimates of those accused of felonies say about 80 percent of those individuals can’t even afford to pay for legal counsel.
It doesn’t help that a 24/7 Wall St. study found that black Wisconsin residents are 12 times more likely to be jailed than white residents in Wisconsin.
That’s why The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread hosted a community briefing Thursday night titled “Criminal Justice Innovation: Models of Public Defense that Advance Equal Justice.” Two MacArthur Fellows Program members spoke and answered questions for over an hour at the event, discussing steps to take locally to change the current culture of the criminal justice system.
Lawyer and legal defense advocate Jonathan Rapping began Gideon’s Promise, which trains and coaches public defenders across the nation. Community organizer Raj Jayadev started a model called participatory defense, which brings community members together to understand and navigate the criminal justice system.
Gideon’s Promise, which generally focuses on training public defenders to treat every case equally, has spread across the nation, even entering into a partnership with the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.
“I walk into courtrooms across this country and I see judges and prosecutors and defense lawyers, who are good people, well-intentioned people, but they see so much processing, so many overwhelming cases, that after a while they start to normalize the injustice,” said Rapping. “Not because they’re bad people, but because culture shapes all of us.”
One of the ways Rapping says courtrooms can change the current culture is to start “humanizing” every individual being defended. He said this needs to start with individual lawyers and individual cases. However, he said this change likely won’t occur overnight.
“It’s a lesson for all of us if we’re in a courtroom and we see someone else’s child being treated in a way that we would not want our child to be treated, we have to say stop… I can’t participate in this,” he said.
Jayadev, who co-founded a community program called Silicon Valley De-Bug — which focuses on teaching low-income and incarcerated individuals about the complex criminal justice system — said simply bringing together people in “concert” to learn about this complex system has created monumental change.
“If you engage, if you participate, if you build with your public defender you can turn time served into time saved,” he said.
Jayadev says participatory defense is focused on teaching non-lawyers how to do things like secure evidence, gather potential eyewitnesses and tell the story of individuals so judges and lawyers see the impact they have on the community. He says that there are now over 20 participatory defense hubs located across the country.
Another example of participatory defense is focused around packing courtrooms with proceeding observers, so judges and attorneys are held accountable.
Overall, these hubs have combined to save nearly 6,500 years of time served for individuals in the criminal justice system, according to Jayadev.
“It’s that synergy of that community and the public defender coming together that was the difference of whether someone was locked up or at home with their family,” said Jayadev.
‘Support of the community’
The briefing fired up multiple public defenders and judges who were in attendance to try to create change right here in Racine. Adrienne Moore, the regional attorney manager for the Racine Region of the Public Defender’s Office, said disproportionate minority confinement and access to clients are two issues she sees here in Racine.
“Overall, I think the criminal defense system has been too much about penalizing people than rehabilitating them. I think we need to get back to that (rehabilitation),” she said after the briefing.
Moore said a program like participatory defense would be a welcome sight for her in Racine.
“Having the support of the community? That would be big,” she added.
Racine County Circuit Court Judge Eugene Gasiorkiewicz said as a judge he agrees that change needs to occur across the state and nation.
“Clearly, the Racine Public Defenders Office is understaffed, underpaid and overworked,” he said.
Although he said that having the accountability factor in the criminal justice system is good, he also said that the economics of modern incarceration are concerning to him.
“The message that has to be sent home is the economics of incarceration. Not only in what it costs the taxpayers to house somebody, but also on the family … and the tangential effect on the families that ultimately the government is now taking care of,” he said. “Unfortunately, modern incarceration is warehousing — it’s not rehabilitation.”
Margaret Johnson, the Racine local attorney manager and the Wisconsin Public Defender’s Office racial and ethnic disparity practice coordinator, said that although she sees positive changes regarding the criminal justice system occurring, they still need to be implemented day to day.
“We have work to do that needs implementation that is happening nationally, but it’s time to come to Wisconsin,” she said.
“Overall, I think the criminal defense system has been too much about penalizing people than rehabilitating them. I think we need to get back to that (rehabilitation).” <&textAlign: right>Adrienne Moore, regional attorney manager for the Racine Region of the Public Defender’s Office