Our treatment of prisoners says a lot about us

It seems to me a measure of the quality of our society is how we treat men and women in jail.

I was in a courtroom a few weeks ago when a jailed defendant asked for a different court-appointed lawyer. The judge scolded him, calling him a whiner who is never satisfied.

The judge treated him disrespectfully, as if he were already found guilty -- and that’s how the public defender, who is young and inexperienced, had been treating him already. That’s why the defendant wanted a different lawyer. He didn’t get one.

This was a very small event. The defendant wasn’t dying for lack of medication. The defendant hadn’t been beaten by arresting officers.

But he had been waiting in jail twenty months for his trial and the charge was a sex offence -- which carries the “ick” factor for everybody. He was very scared that a jury was going to find him guilty if he didn’t mount a strong defense.

More money, or lack of it, is at the heart of the problem. Public Defenders in Missouri, where I live, have severe case overloads. Pay is low, so the attorneys are right out of law school. They don’t have the experience to judge whether they are doing good work on a case and their supervisors don’t have time to provide support.

Funding for public defenders comes from the states. It’s uneven across the nation. While it doesn’t depend on Congress directly, because Congress plans to cut other aid to the states, public defenders offices don’t expect to be able to hire more attorneys.

Maybe the guy whose case I watched is guilty despite his protestations of innocence. And he’s only one guy. The judge and the attorneys all have heavy case loads.

They are trying to do the best they can with what they have. The problem is that they don’t have enough. This does not speak well of the quality of our society.

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