When Every Sentence is a Possible Death Sentence: Public Defenders Speak From the Front Lines About COVID-19

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Executive Summary

Public defenders are tasked with the unenviable job of representing some of the most vulnerable people in society when they are accused of crimes with insufficient resources and limited public support. Premal Dharia, founder and director of the Defender Impact Initiative, said, “Public defenders are on the front lines of the devastation wrought by our system of mass criminalization and they are guided by an unwavering dedication to the very people being devastated.” 

As the coronavirus ravages communities, courtrooms, jails, and prisons, public defenders are now indispensable to confronting the epidemic. Since jails and prisons have become hotbeds of COVID-19, with infection rates exponentially larger than the general population, public defenders have the added task of not just protecting their clients’ rights, but also, in many cases, their lives. They are on the frontlines everyday to see 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. By doing so, they continue to place the lives of millions—people incarcerated at correctional facilities, people who go to work there, and people who live in surrounding communities—at grave risk.

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 are revealing:

  • 85% believed their work as a public defender placed them or their families at risk of developing COVID-19;
  • 84% did not think their local court system was doing enough to protect the health of their clients;
  • 96% said that COVID-19 has impacted their ability to effectively communicate with their clients; and 
  • 48%, as of April 2, 2020, reported that they had a client incarcerated at a facility where there has been an identified case of COVID-19. 

Their concerns went beyond the spread of disease. Public defenders expressed anger over the perceived lack of empathy for their clients’ health, frustration with the many  officials who treat their clients’ rights as disposable, and mental distress over the impact the virus is having on their clients, their loved ones, and themselves. Taken together, their responses form a powerful argument in support of policies, also popular among voters, to dramatically and urgently reduce jail and prison populations in response to the coronavirus.