In this recession it’s no secret that individual states are hurting right along with the rest of the nation; we saw it clearly beginning with local, state and government offices closing one or more days a week, reducing workers pay, some cases to as low as minimum wage, others resorted to slashing civil service sectors such as police and fire departments down to a skeleton crew. As the recession continued, states began to look for creative ways to generate revenue in addition to saving money; across the country new taxes were proposed encompassing several areas on some of the most mundane things such as hair cuts, shaves, hair coloring, limo rides, lawn services, personal trainers, plumbers. Though most of the new taxes never made it into law, the American public was incensed at the seemingly shameless ways to extract money from an already financially strapped public. Now however there is a new concern, state cuts not only reducing law enforcement officers, but changing how the law is applied. For example two years ago one midwestern state facing a shortage of public defenders debated then enacted a policy whereby said defenders would not have to be provided for minor cases including traffic violations and non-violent misdemeanors. Currently the same state has gone a step further giving judges a cost analysis of the sentences they hand down, purported as another tool to help in their decision making, but many fear it will dictate sentences given and translate into being softer on criminals.
The latter two examples of state budget cut impacts are indeed disconcerting; not only has there always been a fundamental right to legal representation in America, economic times like these dictate the need for more public defense not less considering more citizens are unable to afford their own attorneys. Further traffic tickets and misdemeanors do have a detrimental effect on people getting insurance for their vehicle, can effect employment, student loans and a host of other things not immediately apparent until a person finds themselves knee deep in a situation. With that said, it also carries the very real potential of backfiring on the state costing them more in other areas when people lacking legal representation are convicted of various misdemeanors meaning they can’t get a job and thus end up on welfare, they end up serving jail time because they did not have an attorney to seek out all possible evidence to prove their innocence, some will end up clogging the court system as repeat offenders because the consequences of their first run in with the law lead them toward a life of crime.
Plus, despite vehement claims to the contrary, if judges see the cost of the sentence they are handing down, it will influence their judicial choices. There is no way it cannot, because they are far from ignorant about their districts money woes. It is also exceedingly unfair to make them defacto state bean counters: a judge’s job is to listen to a case, decide a sentence based on all the facts in that case, not worry about what it will cost, rather worry about reforming the citizen in front of them while attempting to keep the rest of the public safe, free of whatever harassment in the form of criminal activity the person was responsible for. Advocates of both of the above measures assure skeptics that legal representation is still very much available for serious cases, capital offence charges for instance, and that cost breakdowns are only given to judges deciding sentences for non violent, so called petty crimes. However the end of that sentence is an inevitable yet; they haven’t begun to deny public defenders to individuals accused of serious crimes yet, they haven’t given judges cost analysis on sentences for capital and other cases yet. Should these policies be allowed to stand, it may only be a matter of time as the economic forecast becomes bleaker.
Such policies, regardless of statements amounting to the opposite, will not only give off the appearance of the state being soft on crime, but it will become that way as judges realize that officials want them to choose the less expensive options like probation and rehab costing 13 to 17 thousand dollars a year vs. the beginning cost 16,000 for prison. Judges may be intimidated by state leaders or their peers to make decisions leaning toward lesser sentences; others may fear losing their positions if they do not hand down a certain number of “cost effective” sentences. All of this taking place in an era when headline after headline is littered with shocking crimes committed by people common sense says should be behind bars, in a time when we are just starting to compile comprehensive national databases so that if a person is arrested in multiple states each state is aware of the criminal history and their rap sheet, in a time when we see drunk drivers repeatedly out on the road, people repeatedly driving without a license or on a suspended one, cases where the legal system seems to be a revolving door until there is a major tragedy, usually involving the death of some innocent law abider.
None of the described cost saving methods now active in this midwestern state are solutions to the larger problem, money, be it for public defenders or housing prisoners. While rehab and probation work great for even repeat offender alcoholics who have done the jail thing and come out with the same problem, who should have the option to at least try rehab once, or the person with a ridiculous amount of unpaid parking tickets now facing small amounts time behind bars, it is only shifting money from one place to another. Instead of going to feeding, clothing and sheltering someone in prison, it’s going to fund their stint in rehab or to open up additional probation offices, hire more probation officers. And the more people you send to diversionary programs, the more money will be spent on them until totals equal the cost of what is spent sending persons to prison, only with increasing consequences. Prisons and jails across the country are already releasing vast numbers of non violent, fist time offenders along with those incarcerated for petty drug crime early in order to make room for violent, more dangerous criminals; adding judges decisions based on lower cost and various outside pressures only creates more crime perpetrated by those who would have been scared straight due to a longer stint in jail or incorrigible criminals seemingly determined to get into escalating trouble with the law until they are locked away permanently.
Solving state money problems is never easy especially in these economic times; even so it must be done in a better way. The state in question needs to come to the difficult conclusion that adequate legal representation via public defenders is not negotiable; as it is, across the nation public defenders offices are known for being so overloaded they cannot mount a proper defense for their clients. Repeatedly cases are brought to light involving places so desperate they kept incompetent attorneys on who fell asleep in court rooms, missed obvious objections, ignored key evidence pointing to the possibility of their clients innocence, a few barely putting forth a defense at all projecting a blasè attitude to cases having a significant effect on someone’s life. Yet regardless of the condition of public defenders offices, people still have the right to representation whether they can afford it or not, meaning such changes to common practice must be quelled before they become irreversible national trends filling our beyond over crowded prisons with people who’s only real crime was needing an affordable lawyer.
Fixing the problem, particularly for the state mentioned is a daunting task surely, but not entirely impossible. Simple things like advertising the need for that type of lawyer would be a start; utilizing want ads surrounding target areas in simultaneous conjunction with state employment websites and the state bar is another. Reaching out to the private sector in regions with no shortage of at least small law offices, it might be added, contracting for lower prices than traditional fees, encouraging pro-bono work could be the perfect way to provide legal services to those who need it and allow fledgling firms to build their client base and reputation. It just has to be made a priority before we have more innocent people behind bars, more overcrowded prisons and jails and yet another heated debate from local residents about where they don’t want a new prison built; isn’t it cheaper to stop the problem before it starts to say nothing of far better for society as a whole?