Defend our defenders

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one, one will be appointed to you by the court…” — Miranda warning

Everyone’s heard the Miranda warning and the promise of public counsel. But few know how precarious the system is, how overworked public defenders are, or that the funding of public defenders is really just an afterthought — in even the most liberal of states.

In Massachusetts the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) provides legal representation to indigent people in criminal and civil cases and administrative proceedings in which there is a right to counsel. CPCS attorneys, social service advocates, investigators, secretaries and other professionals, also known as MassDefenders, work on behalf of poor people on criminal, juvenile, child and family, mental health and other civil commitment cases.

MassDefenders work hard for the most disadvantaged people in the Commonwealth. But CPCS staff have been working for years without a voice in the terms and conditions of their employment. Although public defenders receive some of the benefits provided other state employees (pensions and healthcare), they do not currently have the right to collective bargaining.

In 2004 the Supreme Judicial Court addressed a shortage of lawyers due to stagnant rates of compensation that hadn’t changed since 1986, noting the rates were “among the lowest in the nation.” Today there are signs that Massachusetts is again approaching another crisis.

On March 6th, starting with an early morning rally outside Superior Court in Fall River (186 S. Main St.) at 8:15am, Massachusetts public defenders will again demand their collective bargaining rights.

Later in the day, at 4:30pm, MassDefenders will attend a public hearing at Superior Court in Taunton (9 Court St.) organized by CPCS management to hear from the public on rate increases for bar advocates and other appointed lawyers. Like CPCS lawyers, bar advocates are attorneys contracted to represent poor people and do similar work as public defenders.

Public defenders and bar advocates are often the first to hear about injustices visited upon those in county and state prisons. Strengthening public defenders’ rights strengthens opposition to prison abuses, mass incarceration, solitary confinement and the systemic racism in the “justice” system. Defenders with the protections collective bargaining confers can also be powerful advocates for the lawful and humane treatment of people detained in immigration cases.

Defend our defenders.

For more information contact Ben Evans at ben.c.evans@gmail.com or at 401-258-4239.

Never allowed to escape his past

Last week social networks were buzzing with reports that UMASS Dartmouth had rescinded the 2017 acceptance of a black student who had been honest about prior gang affiliations. Right after Martin Luther King day, and right in the middle of Black History month, a young black man had new options snatched away by nervous administrators at a campus in a lily-white community. At a campus meeting on Monday angry students voiced concerns about racism and fairness.

The university for its part shed absolutely no light on the issue. According to a campus spokesman, “We’re just not going to be engaged in a conversation about an admissions case about an individual student.” Whatever the actual facts, the university’s ham-handed refusal to discuss circumstances or safety concerns — or to engage in a “conversation” with students or the wider community — will with good reason be interpreted as a coverup of some good-old-fashioned racism, and less as the well-intentioned effort to keep students safe. The university might as well have invoked “national security.”

UMASS Dartmouth is a public university. Many of us studied there. Many of us know students, employees, faculty, ex-faculty, and regularly attend campus events. Before it joined the UMASS system it was very much a local university, and it still is. In every way it is our university. And the public is entitled to some answers. The administration must open up about the circumstances and reasoning behind changing its mind about this student. And it must publicly and transparently deal with concerns that this was racism again rearing its ugly head in the age of Trump.

Universities are full of people with all sorts of baggage. The UMASS university system was once run by Whitey Bulger’s brother. Despite suspicions he knew where his fugitive brother was hiding, it never seemed to keep William Bulger off a campus or prevent him from becoming president of the Massachusetts Senate. Plenty of white students have had offenses expunged from their records. But this particular student never had the same courtesy extended to him. Despite his best efforts to take a different path in life, this young black man has now been barred from the university for a past that men like him are never permitted to escape.

Courage needed

Few people who listened to Donald Trump’s first State of the Union speech could fail to miss his remarks on minorities and immigrants. This is a demagogue playing to a far-right base by expanding a deportation machine. This is an unrepentant racist who now makes it clear he doesn’t want even legal immigration if it involves brown people.

In New Hampshire since last summer American citizens on I-93 have been stopped at roadblocks in Thornton, forced to show their ids, and had their cars searched in violation of what’s left of the Fourth Amendment. In Fort Lauderdale last week, agents stopped and boarded a Greyhound bus and again demanded to see everyone’s id. A video of the spectacle provoked widespread condemnation.

This is not a sign of a healthy democracy, nor is it an America most of us want to live in. It’s a little too reminiscent of the pogroms of Germany of 1935. And this is why we need the Safe Communities Act, now before the Massachusetts legislature.

State legislators want to protect the public, and they also want to provide law enforcement officials with the tools to do it. Anti-immigrant organizations like FAIR, and spokesmen for FAIR like Bristol County Sheriff Tom Hodgson, would have us believe Trump’s claim that an overwhelming number of immigrants from Latin America are rapists and cartel members. Those who know the immigrant community know that this is complete hogwash. But some legislators fear making the wrong call.

Hodgson and his former segregationist friend Jeff Sessions claim the Safe Communities Act is a “sanctuary” bill that prevents immigration agents from doing their job. Sessions, like Hodgson, even wants to arrest mayors of cities who won’t deputize their police as ICE agents.

But nobody’s stopping ICE from doing its work. The Safe Communities Act now moving through committee simply says that Massachusetts taxpayers aren’t picking up the tab for federal policing, and we’re not going to go out of our way to deputize our police and prison officials as ICE agents. The bill also says “no” to registries of Muslims, Latinos — or anyone else on the wrong side of the president.

Fear merchants like Tom Hodgson are hoping you won’t read the legislation and will believe whatever they tell you about it. But the Safe Communities Act is 154 lines double spaced, and it’s not difficult to read or understand.

An important calculation the legislature must make when voting on “Safe Communities” is whether the risks to democracy of expanding the president’s deportation machine outweigh any benefits of getting rid of what the president calls “bad hombres.” Most of the deportees we’ve been hearing about recently are guilty of 20 year-old DUI’s and other low level offenses. Expanding a police state to go after them will have only negative consequences.

Let’s leave the determination of dangerousness to local cops and DA’s — and not willingly join the president’s pogrom against brown people. Encourage your legislator to pass the Safe Communities Act. The quality of our democracy literally depends on more states passing courageous legislation like this.