The criminal justice system is a cold, lonely place. Once you’re arrested, you’re just another name on a docket sheet, waiting to be processed. You can try to explain yourself to the prosecutor or the judge, but they’ve heard this story before. You’ve heard the phrase “innocent until proven guilty,” but it sure doesn’t feel like it as you wait months in the county jail for your next court date. The slow wheel of our criminal justice system has a nasty habit of crushing everything in its way, like a steamroller plowing through a beach full of sandcastles. This is the byproduct of an adversarial system that is grossly disproportionate in favor of the prosecution.
Take a moment and think about it like sports teams. On the state’s team you have (1) police officers, including the local sheriff’s office, the DEA and FBI; (2) prosecutors, including local prosecutors and the attorney generals office as well as the federal Department of Justice; (3) crime labs with DNA and fingerprint experts and chemists; (4) the alleged victim and his or her family; (5) witnesses; (6) the media and the public perception; (7) the probation office and a bondsman.
On your team you have yourself and maybe your friends and family. The other team is completely funded by the taxpayer. Your team? If you don’t qualify for a public defender, better hope you have some savings. And if you do qualify for a public defender, their office receives only a little more than a third of the funding that the prosecutor’s office receives. And that doesn’t even include funding for police departments or crime labs.
Why it Matters to You
I can see you’re thinking, “I’m not a criminal, why should I care about someone who breaks the law?” Outside of a myriad of constitutional and moral reasons, you should care because chances are you or someone close to you will be arrested. One study found that, regardless of race or gender, 1 in 3 Americans will be arrested by time they are 23-years-old. If you’re male, matters are even worse. Nearly 50% of black males and 40% of white males are arrested by age 23. The number of Americans with a criminal record is roughly the same as the number of Americans with a four-year college degree.
An Example of the Disproportionality
I thought a recent issue would be demonstrative. Under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and United States Supreme Court precedent, you have a right to counsel in certain circumstances, even if you cannot afford counsel. This roughly translates to mean that if you cannot afford private counsel, you will be appointed a public defender. But what happens when the public defender’s office is severely understaffed and underfunded? Wait lists. Your case is put on hold until the local public defender’s office works through the list to your name. So, before you’ve been appointed a defense attorney, the other team and the judge make crucial decisions like whether to keep you in jail pending trial. This determination could lead to you being kept in jail for months or even years while you wait for a public defender to be appointed to your case.
This scenario was a very vivid truth for almost 600 Missourians in early 2020. In January 2020, over 4,600 Missouri defendants were on waitlist for a public defender with almost 600 in pretrial detention. This led to a lawsuit, and ultimately a Missouri judge called the waitlist “unconstitutional” under the United States and Missouri Constitutions. This prompted the Missouri Legislature to allocate $3.6 million more to the public defender budget to hire more attorneys and put an end to the waitlist.
But now you’re wondering, “Since the legislature gave the public defenders more money, and there’s no more waitlist, isn’t this a success story?” I guess if you consider doing the absolute bare minimum a success, then sure. The allocation doesn’t even put a dent in the fact that the United States spends roughly $6 billion in funding for prosecutors while only spending $2.2 billion on public defense services.
This issue is indicative of the overall disproportionality. Have you ever heard of a waitlist to be prosecuted? A defendant is often charged before the story has even left the news cycle. Meanwhile, a defendant sat in jail for two years waiting for a public defender to be appointed to his case.
The disproportionality likely stems from the “tough on crime” rhetoric that began in the 1970s and continues today through the media’s reliance on crime for stories. Americans disproportionately believe that crime is worsening on a local and even more so on a national level despite the overall crime rate consistently falling since 1990.
Bottom Line: Get Help
If you have been charged with a crime, you NEED help. If you can afford private counsel, hire the best defense attorney that you can afford as soon as possible. If you can’t, fill out an application for a public defender as soon as you can, but you can only do that once a charge has been filed. It’s no secret that the odds are stacked against defendants and having a knowledgeable defense attorney on your team can protect you from the steamroller that is the criminal justice system. A defense attorney’s job is to help you navigate the system, hold the prosecutor accountable, and, most importantly, be in your corner.
The Law Office of Adam Woody is ready to be in your corner. You don’t have to do this alone. Contact us at 417-720-4800.
Written by Marcus Clouse, Associate Attorney
Law Office of Adam Woody