Honoring the Best in Indigent Defense

On May 24, 2016, at the John Adams Courthouse, CPCS honored exemplary attorneys – both public and private – social workers, investigators, and professional administrative staff who dedicate their careers to overcoming injustice and championing the cause of zealous representation and effective assistance of counsel.

In describing this year’s event, CPCS Chief Counsel Anthony Benedetti said, “This year we recognized ten outstanding individuals who have made and continue to make extraordinary contributions to indigent defense. Not all of the honorees are attorneys because the best, most effective representation happens when attorneys, investigators, social workers, and other support staff expend a united effort on behalf of our clients. Zealous advocacy is only attainable through the best efforts of a team, a team made up of a variety of individuals.” Continue reading

Massachusetts Touted as a National Leader in Juvenile Defense Standards

When Stateline reporter Rebecca Beitisch interviewed lawyers around the country about juvenile defense standards juvenile justice advocates and defenders pointed to the Committee for Public Counsel Services as a leader in juvenile defense for the standards placed on lawyers, the training required of them and the approach taken with kids.  Here is a link to the article States Push Tougher Standards for Juvenile Public Defenders.

Trial Courts Issue Sentencing Best Practices Reports

 

Trial Court Establishes Best Practice Principles in Criminal Sentencing* 

BOSTON, MA — The Massachusetts Trial Court today announced that the four Trial Court departments with criminal jurisdiction have issued comprehensive criminal sentencing reports, including best practice principles to assist judges in developing individualized, evidence-based sentences that are intended to improve offenders’ chances of success upon release, reduce recidivism, and better secure public safety.

“In response to the commitment made by Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants in his first State of the Judiciary address, I am pleased to report that the Trial Court has completed a thorough set of reports outlining principles to provide consistent, informed guidance to judges in determining sentences that are best suited to the adjudication of individual cases,” said Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey.

The Sentencing Best Practice principles state that sentences should be proportionate to the gravity of the offense, the harm done to crime victims, and the role of the offender.  A sentence should be no more severe than necessary to achieve its purposes and special conditions of probation should be narrowly tailored to the needs of the defendant, the public, and the victim, because an excessive number of special conditions may increase rather than decrease the likelihood of recidivism. The principles also encourage judges to inform defendants at the time of sentencing that the court will consider early termination of their probation or lift some conditions if they fully comply.

The Boston Municipal, District, Juvenile and Superior Court Departments formed Sentencing Best Practices Committees comprised of judges, probation officers, prosecutors, public defenders, law enforcement representatives, members representing local bar associations, and members of the Sentencing Commission to recommend sentencing practices that are informed by research-based risk factors. Each departmental committee developed a set of principles to help guide judges in exercising sentencing discretion, where the criminal statutes allow such discretion, as well as a set of tools to assist judges in implementing those sentencing best practices. In addition, the Massachusetts Probation Service is developing a searchable database of the programs and service providers available to probation departments by geographical region and by program type, so that judges may know what programs are available based on the particular needs of the defendant, such as drug treatment, mental health treatment, or batterers programs.

“This is a major milestone in our ongoing commitment to craft appropriate sentences,” said Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph Gants. “I thank the four Sentencing Best Practice Committees for their diligence and thoughtfulness in producing this tremendous body of work, which will help judges to set sentences that not only fit the crime but also fit the offender, and in so doing reduce the likelihood of recidivism.”

The comprehensive sentencing materials include:

  • Sentencing Best Practice Reports that detail the sentencing principles and recommendations of each departmental working group, and identify its members.
  • Sentencing Bench Book that serves as an easily useable reference guide for judges on statutes and legal issues that relate to sentencing.
  • a Memorandum on Best Practices in Sentencing Utilizing Social Science Data & Research that identifies the offender and social science factors that may affect recidivism rates, and the incentives and sanctions that have proven effective (and ineffective) in reducing recidivism, so that judges may apply the applicable social science research to their sentencing decisions.

*Press Release from:  ‘PUBLIC INFORMATION OFFICE, SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT

Click here for all Reports and here for the Juvenile Court Report

Watch “Poverty, Violence, and the Developing Mind”

From the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior @ MGH: An increasing number of children are at risk for exposure to severe violence and dangerous living conditions. During this panel event, experts wrestled with the following question: What are the implications of trauma exposure and toxic stress for healthy brain development? Click here to watch the webinar.

Supporting an Open Data Standards Approach for MassCourt Data*


The following is an open reply to the Massachusetts Trial Court’s call for comments regarding its Proposed Uniform Rules on Public Access to Court Records. It is the joint comment of multiple organizations and individuals. CPCS is a signatory, and this post is meant to provide some context explaining why. For a complete list of signatories, visit http://ma-court-comment.github.io/


Given that the adoption of a common data standard for the Massachusetts legal community offers the promise of increased efficiency, lower information sharing costs, and improved access to courts, we propose that the Massachusetts Trial Courts adopt a set of data standards to facilitate sharing information between the Trial Courts and other stakeholders, and that all data deemed publicly available be made accessible in a machine readable format consistent via an application programming interface (API) overseen by the courts. This would supersede the need for the Courts to create multiple, disparate portals for various stakeholders, as described in Rule 5. It would also simplify the procedures described in Rule 3 as the use cases envisioned could be conducted over the API.



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Girls in the Juvenile Justice system are often victims of family violence, report finds.

“Girls in the criminal justice system report far higher rates of in-home sexual abuse and are detained for minor offenses more often than boys, in what becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of imprisonment.”  Girls in Juvenile Detention are often the Victims of Family Abuse, Report finds , here is the link to the report discussed in this article  Gender Injustice. 

Less is more when it comes to probation for juveniles

This article is a good compilation of the studies out there that with most kids less (probation supervision/conditions) is more. Case Now Strong for Ending Probation as a Default Disposition in Juvenile Defense.

This is also what former (acting) Mass. Commissioner of Probation Ron Corbett says about probation generally in his article The Burdens of Leniency: The Changing Face of Probation.

Gideon Anniversary – Why the Rights of the Accused Matter

Although the American tradition of providing a zealous defense, even for unpopular defendants, goes back to John Adams, it was not until March 18, 1963, that the U.S. Supreme Court declared that Clarence Earl Gideon had not received a fair trial because he was too poor to afford counsel.  Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335  The ruling was momentous because it guaranteed the right to counsel to every person, regardless of economic or social status.  Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Hugo Black declared, “In our adversary system of criminal justice, a person [hauled] into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.  This seems to be an obvious truth…. lawyers in criminal court are necessities, not luxuries.”

Here is what the right to counsel means today:  On February 10, 2016, George Perrot was released from prison after serving 30 years for a crime he did not commit.  He got out because of a dedicated team of pro bono lawyers and public defenders that fought for justice, even though their client appeared to be guilty of a heinous crime.  They were a team that stood up to a prosecutor who had engaged in what the court called egregious misconduct; a team that listened to him and exposed the junk science that helped lead to his conviction; a team that humanized him before a judge with the courage to correct a grave injustice.  In the process, this dedicated team of advocates even brought a measure of vindication to the victim of the crime, who insisted from the outset that the police arrested the wrong man.  In seeking justice for Mr. Perrot, these lawyers defended all of us from the misuse of forensic evidence, the abuse of governmental power, and an undermining of the public trust in our court system.

This is important because, popular culture aside, the majority of people in need of public defenders are not drug lords, murderers, or even dangerous.  Rather, most indigent who are accused are homeless, have problems with substance use, are veterans with PTSD, or are struggling with mental illness.  They are young people caught up in delinquency procedures because they have been underserved by their school systems.  They are your friends, family, and neighbors charged with relatively minor, non-violent offenses, and are at little or no risk of chronic court involvement.  However, without an effective attorney those involved in the court process – regardless of the severity of the alleged crime – are at great risk of losing housing, being excluded from school, losing their driver’s license, paying substantial fees and fines, being deported, being involuntarily confined to a mental health facility, or losing their children.  This system continues the cycle of poverty that in particular affects urban communities of color.  The modern public defender not only protects the legal rights of the accused, he or she also helps clients become productive citizens by getting them into school, setting them up in drug treatment, arranging for parenting classes or anger management, helping vets get housing and medical care, and so much more.

I have the privilege to serve as Chief Counsel of the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), the Massachusetts public defender agency.   Every day I am reminded of how lucky I am to be able to work with the dedicated lawyers, social workers, investigators, and other professionals that make up the indigent defense bar in Massachusetts.  These lawyers, many of whom are private attorneys who accept court appointments for very little money, dedicate themselves to advising and advocating on behalf of each and every client they are assigned.  In reality, they are fighting for the right of all of us to live in a society in which everyone is treated fairly regardless of our wealth, race or social standing, regardless of our age or mental status, and regardless of what bad acts we have been accused of committing.  Fairness is the most fundamental value underlying a democratic society and a healthy public defender system is a critical component of a fair and effective court system.  

National Public Defender Day – Friday March 18th

This Friday, March 18th, marks the 53rd anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, and the first nationwide celebration of Public Defense Day.  CPCS is joining the National Association for Public Defense (NAPD), Gideon’s Promise, and other indigent defense organizations across the county in a social media campaign to celebrate and commemorate the event.  As we all know, Gideon v Wainwright is the U.S. Supreme Court landmark decision that created a right to counsel for people too poor to afford to hire a lawyer.  Our campaign is designed to highlight the important and excellent work that everyone in the CPCS indigent defense community does every day on behalf of our clients in both criminal and civil cases.  Whether we are a CPCS lawyer, investigator, social worker or social service advocate, a member of the CPCS staff, or private counsel, we are all “public defenders” on #PublicDefenseDay; we all fight against injustice, abuse of power, and inequality; and we all fight for people, seeing and affirming their human dignity and value, and vindicating their legal and human rights. Continue reading