Do you remember "Perry Mason"? Perhaps for you it was "L.A. Law" or "Boston Legal." For many of us, our primary experience with the justice system is television.
The portrayal of lawyers on TV is wide-ranging, to be sure. We see the corrupt lawyer, the dedicated lawyer, the drunken lawyer, the always-working lawyer. But, regardless of human frailties, what we generally see are smart, witty, capable individuals saving the day. Even when the accused are poor, they seem to have the hard-working and dedicated public defender who pulls out all the stops.
In truth, these portrayals fail to capture the ugly reality of the inequality of access to justice. It's TV, after all.
In real life, there are several tiers of legal representation. But, to simplify things, let's consider only two: lawyers paid by their clients, and lawyers paid by the government to represent those who cannot afford their own lawyer.
What we have is a system where one group gets the best money can buy, like the Yankees. This might include sophisticated laboratory analyses, the most sought-after investigator in the region, or a team of lawyers working on one's behalf. Those in the other group get an overworked and underpaid public defender with no budget for things like a private investigator. That same public defender might have 100 other clients and multiple court appearances to squeeze into his or her day.
Don't get me wrong. Public defenders are some of the hardest-working people I know. They get a bad rap from people who, mistakenly, think that only those who aren't smart enough settle for work with the PD. The problem isn't individual attorneys, but a system that doesn't offer a level playing field. There are lousy lawyers charging $400 an hour and public defenders who perform miracles. But, as a system, have no doubt: Access to justice differs depending on one's bank account.
The differences don't end there. Geography, education and social networks, for example, also make a difference. Take the case of Michael Ustaszewski, now in his 34th year of incarceration in Ohio. At age 18, indigent and having only a ninth-grade education, he was arrested for aggravated murder. His court appointed attorney had next to no experience in criminal defense. Ustaszewski was ultimately convicted. Had he or his parents had the resources to hire the best criminal defense attorney in town, his case might not have even gone to trial.
The justice system is terribly flawed. But it doesn't operate in a vacuum. Social inequality means that some attend great schools while others languish in classrooms that are little more than state-funded day care operations. Some receive exceptional medical care while others die waiting to be seen at a public hospital. Some have a home to which they return each night, while others wander the streets. And some go to prison for crimes they didn't commit, while others walk free. We don't have to scratch too deep to see that — regardless of the rhetoric — equal access to justice is little more than an illusion. But we have the power to change that.
Melissa Sheridan Embser-Herbert is a professor of sociology at Hamline University in St. Paul.