Ed Monahan: Public defenders are crucial to fair criminal justice system

May 1, 2014 

Scales of Justice

Brass Scales of Justice on a desk showing Depth-of-field books behind in the background

JAMES STEIDL

By Ed Monahan

Thanks to all who work for a fair, just and balanced criminal justice system, legislators, judges, prosecutors, criminal defense lawyers, the public.

Special appreciation goes to all who promote the right to counsel and the value of public defenders. The right to counsel stands above all other constitutional protections. According to the U.S. Supreme Court: "Of all the rights that an accused person has, the right to be represented by counsel is by far the most pervasive for it affects his ability to assert any other rights he may have."

I am proud of our defenders especially as we celebrate Law Day 2014 because every day they work with courage and resolve to represent every client well.

Examples of Lexington defenders providing high value to citizens they represent and to the community include:

■ Representing an innocent 20-year-old black man wearing a hoodie who was prosecuted for robbery on flimsy evidence and without full investigation of his alibi. After a short deliberation, the jury found him not guilty. Tragically, the client spent 10 months in jail, at taxpayer expense, awaiting release.

■ Resisting an excessive five-year plea offer by representing a client overcharged by prosecutors for felony receiving stolen property and as a second-degree persistent felony offender when a jury found the person guilty of a misdemeanor.

■ Obtaining fair and proportionate punishment when a prosecutor overcharged a client with felony nonsupport. The jury of randomly selected jurors found that a $250 fine was appropriate.

This representation by counsel is an essential part of our adversary system of justice that has as its fundamental obligation to make sure that fair process is used to achieve reliable outcomes when a person's liberty is at stake.

Tragically, there are a few people who relish the opportunity to attack public defenders. With outlandish rhetoric, these few like Ray Larson say things such as "public defenders are really public offenders."

These few misrepresent criminal justice funding data and criminal justice policy initiatives to seek an unfair advantage. Often, their claptrap is half-truths that can only be intended to mislead those listening. This misinformation is harmful to our American form of justice.

I am not being paid to misinform, misuse data or pompously spew bombast to stir things up. I have a responsibility to seek appropriate funding and reasonable workloads for our public defense system through the use of professional information.

We have a long way to go before sufficient funding is fully achieved for the Kentucky criminal justice system, especially for defenders.

Contrary to the bluster of the partisan few, the reality is that there are substantial financial benefits to society when public defense systems are properly funded.

Public defenders who are competent with manageable workloads and professional independence make sure that the rights guaranteed by our Constitution are protected for the citizen accused and that no one's liberty is taken unless they are proven guilty.

I want our criminal justice system to have proper resources. I work for that reality. I served on the American Bar Association Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System that was co-chaired by Ted Olsen and David Boies.

I have been a part of the Kentucky Bar Association effort to obtain the necessary funding for the Kentucky Court of Justice.

There are practical reasons to provide adequate funding to the whole criminal justice system: To increase timely resolution of cases; to allow each case to be fully dealt with; to increase the reliability of the results.

When staffed adequately, public defenders increase efficiencies, prevent overcharging and expensive wrongful convictions, and lower costly incarceration rates for counties and states by advocating for pretrial release and alternate or reduced sentences.

I call for more resources for our courts and prosecutors every time I have an opportunity. I do so today on Law Day 2014 as I continue to ask for adequate resources for our Kentucky public defense system.

Kentuckians deserve a criminal justice system that has the resources to attract and retain high-caliber leaders to do what is the most important work in our communities: determining whether someone's liberty or life should be taken from them.

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