NPR will be airing a program today on ‘All Things Considered’ (check your local area for broadcast times) that deals with indigent legal services and the Public Defenders Office in Detroit, MI. While this program deals with a specific city the problem of the poor receiving sub-standard legal services all over America. One wonders why there are so many poor in prison and the affluent seem to “get off’ with lighter sentences or having their cases thrown out completely.
The constitution seem to imply equal protection under the law and a blind lady with equal scales of Justice for all it’s citizens. In reality the constitution just doesn’t seem to apply and The Lady has her eyes wide open and the scales are leaning toward prosecutors to those who can’t afford legal services and have to rely on a Government run public defense. All over the country, these public defenders offices are poorly funded and scarcely staffed. For the clients staffing and funding issues have provided them with little or no defense.
Politisite and Iron Mill News is in the middle of an investigation on indigent legal services in South Carolina. It is ironic that NPR has done the same about Detroit. Their story seems to weigh on the attorneys and cast the blame on them. Our story will focus on a system that is broken. The program is also available on mp3 format.
The right has been enshrined in the Constitution: Anyone accused of a crime has the right to a lawyer, no matter how poor they are. Public defenders are supposed to represent the people who can’t afford lawyers. But they’ve been so overworked and underpaid for decades, the system is in crisis. And the recession has made the situation worse.
Groups of lawyers and advocates have filed lawsuits in states from New York to Florida to Arizona charging that low-income people can’t get a fair trial. Public defenders in Kansas and Minnesota are refusing cases outright.
In Michigan, the system has been broken for decades. Detroit public defenders face abysmal pay, unmanageable caseloads and flimsy oversight.
A Product of the System
A lot of lawyers in Detroit say if you want to see what’s wrong with this country’s public defender system, just take a look at Bob Slameka: He has gotten into trouble a lot during his 40 years as a public defender, but the county still appoints him to cases.
The system does not provide the lawyers with the tools they need to defend their clients. Investigators are very important, expert witnesses are very important … You get such a small amount of money that you can’t find anybody to do the work for you.
– Frank Eaman, former public defender in Detroit
Records show the state Supreme Court reprimanded him for misconduct involving more than 16 clients. In most of those cases, he filed briefs late and didn’t keep his clients adequately informed. And then one of his clients, Eddie Joe Lloyd, made national headlines in 2002. He was exonerated by DNA evidence after serving 17 years in prison for rape and murder.
Slameka had taken on Lloyd’s appeal. In the two years he handled the case, Slameka never once met with his client or accepted any of his phone calls. The appeal failed. Lloyd didn’t get out of prison until a national advocacy group took on the case. Slameka says he couldn’t do more for Lloyd because of one important reason: the government didn’t pay him enough.
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