Pandemic has laid bare inequities in legal system

Anniversary of landmark right-to-counsel case is cause for reflection

ON MARCH 18, 1963, in the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwrightthe United States Supreme Court established the right to counsel across the nation. Since that moment there has been an ongoing conversation about what that right means, who public defenders are, and how we can all make the legal system better.  

Every year, public defenders use the anniversary of this historic ruling as a moment to reflect on our responsibilities and also educate others about what we do. However, when I think back on the last year, it is not enough to simply list the breadth of our mandate. Instead, on this Public Defender Day, I want to share what we have seen and experienced during a pandemic that has laid bare the gross inequities that continue to exist in our system. 

One year ago, the pandemic forced the courts to shut their doors, and an already overburdened system plunged into a dark, uncertain place. The Committee for Public Counsel Services, looking out for the safety of our employees and clients, also closed our offices – but our constitutional obligations and our loyalties to those we represent prevented us from being idle bystanders.  

We represent approximately 90 percent of adults charged with crimes in Massachusetts, but the right to counsel also extends to juveniles, children, and families involved with the child welfare system, those facing civil commitment, clients seeking assistance with guardianships, and other areas where counsel is statutorily required. Our clients are often ignored and vilified, and when the pandemic changed how we as a society operate, they were the first people to feel the pain.  

Weeks after the pandemic hit our shores, we argued before the Supreme Judicial Court that there was a need to release as many prisoners as possible in order to save lives. Since that day on March 31, 2020, more than 5,000 people have been released. Even with that victory, we felt helpless as we watched the virus rip through our jails and prisons, infecting so many people who we continue to fight for.  

Meanwhile, as most of society became disillusioned with incessant Zoom meetings, we were tasked with using the technology to advocate for the life and liberty interests of our clients. Staff and private attorneys who take our cases have turned countertops into remote counsel tables and continue to do what they can to defend in an impersonal, virtual environment. 

Our children and family law advocates continue to demand more when parents are limited to engaging with young children – including infants – via Zoom. Imagine the helplessness of trying to build a relationship with a baby through a screen. 

While jury trials are still on hold, trials for those who are facing civil commitments have continued. Our mental health litigation division had to create a first-of-its-kind training in order to teach attorneys how to advocate remotely. Many of these same lawyers do guardianship work, where they have had to respond to petitions for clients with both disabilities and COVID who are facing end-of-life issues. 

The advocacy may be virtual, but we feel the real-world despair of our clients. We bring it home with us and try to balance it with the personal challenges we all face during this horrible moment. 

As our agency continues to engage in our separate-but-together advocacy, we are continuing our mission to be a positive voice in the ongoing, much-needed conversation about racial inequities in the courts. Last September, the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School produced a report proving what so many public defenders have argued for years: Black and Latinx people are overrepresented – and receive longer sentences – in the Massachusetts criminal legal system. 

CPCS and others want more than just an even playing field. We want the system to reassess how it operates and move away from the business-as-usual orthodoxy that has led to so much pain and suffering without increasing public safety. The late Chief Justice Ralph Gants sought to root out the inequities in the system, and we should all play a part in continuing his mission.  

There are many great obstacles that lie ahead. Courts are still not at full operation, jail and prison populations are increasing to pre-pandemic levels, and a huge backlog of jury trials continues to build. Meanwhile, we continue to see private counsel shortages in parts of the state where the bar is aging and funding levels make it difficult to recruit new and diverse attorneys. 

But being a public defender means meeting these challenges through hard work and creativity. It means delivering high-end advocacy to those who have the least and telling the stories of those who are often forgotten.  

Public Defender Day carries an added weight to it this year, but when I think back on what we have gone through, I feel a sense of gratitude. The lawyers, investigators, social workers, and administrative assistants who embody the right to counsel in Massachusetts have held themselves and the legal system to a higher standard during these dark times. 

Meet the Author
And that, in itself, is worth celebrating. 

Anthony Benedetti is chief counsel of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state agency that oversees legal representation for indigent individuals in Massachusetts.