New Report: Public Defenders Across The Country Speak Out About The Impact COVID-19 Has Had On Their Jobs And The Responsibility of Having to Fight for People’s Rights and Lives

Every day, public defenders who are responsible for representing 80% of people charged with a criminal offense in this country, do so against insurmountable odds with insufficient resources and limited public support. Now as the coronavirus ravages communities, courtrooms, jails, and prisons, public defenders find themselves indispensable to confronting the epidemic because prisons and jails are “amplifiers” of infectious disease which can easily become hubs to spread the disease inside and outside a facility, impacting those we incarcerate, people going to work within a correctional facility, and entire communities. Said one public defender, “We find now that we are responsible not only for our clients’ liberty, as is the normal responsibility of a public defender, but also for our clients’ lives. It has raised the intensity and necessity of our job by tenfold[.]” 

In a unique report released Thursday, “When every sentence is a possible death sentence: Public defenders speak from the front lines about Covid-19,” The Justice Collaborative Institute asked nearly 200 public defenders from across the country how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their work and personal lives. The responses form a powerful argument that far too many people in positions of authority continue to undermine public health and safety by processing far too many people daily into the criminal legal system, while at the same time failing to protect the millions of people behind bars, according to the report’s authors Irene Oritseweyinmi Joe, acting professor of law and Martin Luther King Jr. Hall Research Scholar at U.C. Davis School of Law, and Ben Miller, senior legal counsel at The Justice Collaborative. The report comes at a time when the number of reported infections and deaths in America’s jails and prisons from Covid-19 continue to skyrocket. 

“Public defenders routinely do the hard work of representing the poor and marginalized in unimaginably difficult circumstances. This has never been truer than during this pandemic,” said report co-author Professor Irene O. Joe. “This report provides the public with a sense of what this experience has been like for public defenders—the fear for client safety, the concerns about affecting the health of their own family and friends, and the struggles to maintain their own physical and mental health at a time of heightened anxiety. Their words are haunting but should drive all of us to consider how justice system failures have led to this problem and the lessons we can adopt going forward to improve the current criminal legal  system.”

The responses from public defenders were revealing: 

  • 85 percent of public defenders believed their work placed themselves or their family at heightened risk of developing Covid-19;
  • 96 percent said their ability to communicate with their clients has been negatively impacted due to Covid-19;
  • 84 percent did not believe their local court system was doing enough to protect the health and safety of their client;
  • 54 percent have had a prosecutor or a judge say to them that one of their clients would be safer in jail or prison than free due to Covid-19; 
  • 48 percent, as of April 2, 2020, said they had a client incarcerated at a facility where there has been a documented case of Covid-19. 

Beyond those questions, public defenders were asked to explain how Covid-19 has impacted their ability to provide effective representation, what inadequacies in the criminal legal system have been exposed to the general public, and what types of risks are you most concerned about for yourself, your family, and your clients. The  uniting theme in the overwhelming number of responses was an awareness that it fell on their shoulders as public defenders to save as many of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in this country as possible from a disease that inside a jail or prison can mean a death sentence. As one public defender said, “I’ve never handled capital cases but now I feel like every incarcerated client is potentially a capital case.” Taken together, their responses form a powerful argument in support of policies, also popular among voters, to dramatically and urgently slow the number of people being brought into the criminal legal system and reduce jail and prison populations in response to COVID-19. 

The full memo is available here.

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