“It is an article of jailhouse faith that poor people get what they pay for in lawyers: Nothing.” A recent article in the New York Times gives an inside look at how vulnerable populations (the poor, the mentally ill, etc.) are treated within the legal system.
The article details one woman’s encounters with a public defender’s office; however, her situation is not unique. Low salaries and high caseloads often permeate public defenders’ offices, contributing to the problem of unbalanced representation for disadvantaged individuals.
In New York State, the New York Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit due to inadequate representation by public defenders’ offices. However, there are states that have succeeded in developing model public defense, namely Wisconsin, where the public defenders’ system has served as an example for other states.
Unfortunately, mentally ill individuals and other populations with no “voice” often fall through the cracks of the legal system. The combination of the overworked/underpaid public defender with the disadvantaged citizen can lead to disastrous consequences, including wrong convictions and inaccurate charges and sentencing.
The development of mental health courts in recent years has assisted with helping mentally ill individuals reduce their contact with the legal system by linking the defendant to services such as mental health treatment, housing, and social support services.
However, there are criticisms of mental health courts as well. Check in soon for my next post, which will explore mental health courts and examine the pros and cons to this unique aspect of the legal system.