“Let truth and falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”
-John Milton in Areopagitica
The police, contrary to popular belief, do not commonly arrest people for the sheer fun of it. If nothing else, an arrest entails a good deal of paperwork. Criminal defendants are not particularly attractive people. I spent a day in City Court a few months ago for a story. It was not an uplifting experience. A day spent observing City Court is more than enough to make one a firm believer in the phrase “play stupid games, win stupid prizes.” By the end of the session, I was quite depressed having witnessed a seemingly endless parade of people who made some truly bad decisions, often not for the first time, and one suspects, not for the last. A Mensa meeting, it was not.
Throwing the lot under the jail, or something a bit more Draconian, at the least possible expense to the taxpayers, seems at first glance to be a great idea. It is not. “Lock ’em up and throw away the key” places us at the top of a slippery slope with one foot on a banana peel. Not particularly caring how they get thrown under the jail, or in what condition they are in when they get there, places both feet on the banana peel.
Louisiana’s Public Defenders have been underfunded for decades, arguably well past the point of not being able to meet the state’s legal obligation to provide a defense for citizens accused of crimes who are unable to afford legal counsel. Funding the state’s public defenders is a tough sell in a state like Louisiana. I can hear most of my readers at this point thinking something along the lines of “so what?”, if not something more colorful.
I’ll concede the obvious. Most people who wind up in court, really are guilty, if not of what they stand accused of, then of something equally bad, if not worse. Chances are the accused drunk driver did not get caught on his first foray onto the highways. The brawlers, thieves and whatnot did not decide on a whim to give another lifestyle a try while coming home from choir practice. There are people who truly do need to be in jail. This is not about them. It is about us.
Conservatism is marked by a realistic view of man’s fallen nature, of the temptations of power and of how to build – and maintain – our institutions to safeguard our liberties. We do ourselves no favors by valuing ends over means. The state has virtually unlimited resources. It has armed men and women with the authority to enforce its mandates. It has the ability to take away your property, liberty and your very life. The power of the state, while necessary for the maintenance of the ordered liberty of civil society, needs checks and balances upon that power. The nature of man is the same throughout time and place. People become neither angels nor devils when they put on police uniforms, judicial robes or become prosecutors.
There will always be the temptation to take a shortcut, often arising from the best of motives, that of taking an eminently deserving person off the streets. The present situation in which the criminal defense system for indigent defendants is so grossly underfunded compared to the resources given the District Attorneys and police exacerbates these insidious temptations by making it less likely that there will be consequences for bending the rules. That situation, allowed to fester, will lead to more serious abuses. Darker temptations will emerge. This is good for no one.
This is not about coddling criminals. The Public Defenders Office serves as a necessary part of preserving everyone’s freedom by counterbalancing the power of the state. Make it a fair fight.