R2C National Consortium Second Annual Meeting – Former US Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates

R2C  National Consortium Second Annual Meeting – Former US Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates


SALLY QUILLIAN YATES: Well,
good morning, everyone. And to our guest
here today, welcome to the Department of Justice. Lisa, thank you for your
incredibly kind introduction, but more importantly, thank you
for your fantastic leadership of the office of
access to justice. I also want to recognize
everybody who is here today from ATJ, for you’re absolutely
tireless efforts here. Now, as I would expect, just
about everybody here knows, this office was created by then
Attorney General Holder back in 2010 to ensure that
we were doing everything we could here at the Department
of Justice, to increase access to justice in both the
civil and criminal arenas, regardless of race
or wealth or status. And the work that this office
does is truly inspiring and is really central
to the mission of the Department of Justice. Now, we’ve got a
diverse crowd here today made up of prosecutors
and public defenders, law enforcement officers
and community stakeholders, legal advocates
and community activist. And this diversity is really
a reflection of the fact that we all have a role
to play in improving our system of justice and
in ensuring that it lives up to our founding ideals. That’s especially true
for public defenders. As Lisa mentioned, as
a federal prosecutor in Atlanta for
over 20 years, I’ve had a lot of experience
with public defenders. I have seen firsthand the
relentless dedication, the relentless dedication
of a cause of justice that public defenders exhibit
each and every day, often times in the face of
difficult, if not impossible circumstances. Public defenders are
often understaffed and under-resourced,
and that’s not how our system is supposed to work. And I so admire what all of you
who are public defenders here do every day to ensure that an
individual’s access to justice is not determined by how
much money he or she has. Now as Lisa mentioned,
as you all know, we are at a crucial moment
right now in our history, where there’s a
significant consensus that has been built around the
need to reform aspects of our criminal justice system. For the first time
in a very long time, we have folks from
both political parties on both ends of the spectrum
who are finding common ground. In the last couple of years,
I have spent time with people from all backgrounds,
with correctional officers and inmates, with
law enforcement officers and public
defense advocates, from community leaders
and community activists. And despite the differing
roles that each of them has and sometimes the differing
perspectives that they have, the common theme has
been clear from this and that is that the
status quo needs to change. Now, we’re trying to do our
part at the Justice Department. We have directed our
prosecutors to stop charging mandatory minimums for
certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. As Lisa mentioned,
we have embarked on an historic clemency
initiative allowing the president to commute the
sentences of more individuals than the last 11
presidents combined. And I’m sorry, Lisa, I have
to correct you on one thing. It’s actually 744 individuals
right now, but who’s counting, with many more to come. And we have significantly
bolstered our reentry efforts here, trying to ensure that
once individuals have paid their debt to society that they
have the tools that they need to be able to be successful when
they reenter their communities. Now, all this stuff
is really important. But as we are strengthening
our criminal justice system, I think we also have to
remember that a core component of our system is that everyone,
regardless of race or class or status, has access
to competent counsel. Now more than half
a century ago, the Supreme Court affirmed what
they called the obvious truth that every defendant charged
with a serious crime has a right to an attorney, even
if he or she cannot afford one. In Gideon, the court
recognized that adequate legal representation
for the most vulnerable among us is really the bedrock
of our entire criminal justice system. And while our nation
has made progress in removing barriers to
quality representation, the unfortunate reality is that
five decades later, the promise of Gideon remains unfulfilled
for far too many individuals in our nation. In every corner of
our country, there are public defender systems
painfully understaffed and under resourced. Some offices have had to close
their doors to new clients, and others are
forced to represent a seemingly never-ending line
of clients without the attorneys that they need to
be able to provide adequate representation. The Bureau of Justice
Statistics found that between 1999 and 2007,
the number of public defenders increased by only 4%,
but yet the caseload increased by over 20%. Now when managing
such huge caseloads, it can be difficult, if
not impossible, for counsel to carry out their
legal and ethical duties to their clients. At the department, we are
embracing our responsibility to ensure that our
country lives up to the promise of equal
justice under the law. For example, in 2012, ATJ,
under Lisa’s leadership, launched the Legal Aid
Interagency Roundtable, which brings together
22 different agencies from across the
entire government to work to integrate civil
legal aid into a wide array of federal programs. Now what this means is
that this roundtable has unlocked millions of
dollars in assistance that can be used to connect
Americans and legal aid providers to really vital
services that are necessary, vital services in the
area of health care and housing, education, and
employment, and other core needs for every American. In 2015, ATJ supported efforts
to prevent the criminalization of homelessness. And earlier this
year, the department issued guidance to
state and local courts regarding their legal
obligations with respect to the assessment and
enforcement of court fines and fees, doing this to ensure
that individuals are not jailed for being poor. The department has also filed
four statements of interest, or amicus briefs, in courts
throughout the country arguing a constructive
denial of the right to counsel in jurisdictions
where Public Defender Services were so under resourced
and understaffed that they essentially resulted
in indigent defendants having counsel in name only. At the same time,
earlier this year, we announced that the department
was awarding $3.3 million to cities and states in
defense advocacy organizations to support their
indigent defense work. These awards will
expand the number of cities who have
an opportunity to participate in BJA’s
and smart defense programs. These are programs where cities
can use research and data to be able to ensure that their
criminal justice programs are as effective as possible. And it also provides investment
and risk assessment tools to be used in the pretrial
release decision-making process and in reentry planning. Now while all of these
steps are important and we hope that
they’re meaningful, our work is far from finished. And one area I’d like
to talk a little bit about today is access to
counsel at bail hearings. While Gideon and
subsequent cases made clear that the Sixth
Amendment guarantees court-appointed counsel to
every indigent defendant who faces incarceration,
there is still a question of
when, precisely how early in the
criminal proceedings, the Constitution requires
that counsel be appointed. This is especially
important when we’re talking about a
defendant’s initial appearance, an initial appearance
where a judge is likely to decide whether
to detain the defendant or to release him on bail. Now, in the federal system, the
rule on bail hearings is clear. Under the Bail Reform Act,
defendants have a right to an attorney, and if
they can’t afford one they have a right to have an
attorney appointed for them, and that makes sense. The Constitution, not
only entitles defendants to a presumption of innocence,
but also protects them from excessive bail. Yet many indigent and
low-income defendants are unfamiliar with
the full extent of those constitutional
guarantees. Now, without a doubt
there are some defendants who are either
likely to flee or who are so dangerous that
they should be detained, but others should not. And given the
serious consequences that can flow from a
pretrial detention decision, from losing a job and
housing to missing school and defaulting on
debts, it’s crucial that defendants have counsel
advocating for their rights. Eight years ago in Rothgery
versus Gillespie County, the Supreme Court held that
the Sixth Amendment to right to counsel attaches at a
defendant’s initial appearance, an initial appearance
before magistrate judge that is an important moment
when the defendant learns about the charges against
him and his liberty is subject to restriction. But the court has not
gone the extra step and stated that a magistrate
must appoint counsel for an indigent
defendant at that point in criminal proceedings. A number of States, nonetheless
have taken that step and now ensure the availability
of court-appointed counsel when a judge is setting bail. Other States though
have not, and it’s not uncommon for
indigent defendants in some jurisdictions to be
held in jail for weeks or even months before they’re
assigned an attorney who can advocate on their behalf. That’s wrong. And that is inconsistent with
our basic notions of fairness. In 1964, Attorney General
Bobby Kennedy testified before Congress on legislation to
overhaul the federal Bail Reform Act, and he expressed
his concern that bail had, in his word, “…become
a vehicle for systemic injustice.” And he diagnosed the problem
pretty bluntly stating that “Far too many men and women
remained in jail simply because they cannot afford
to pay for their freedom.” Now certainly, much
has changed since then both at the federal level
and across the States, but our constitution
prizes the right to counsel in criminal proceedings. And regardless of whether
the Supreme Court determines that the Sixth Amendment
requires it, it is clear to me that our nation’s
core values demand that all jurisdictions
recognize the need for court-appointed
counsel at a bail hearing. Not only is the defendant’s
liberty at stake, but so too is the fairness of
our criminal justice system. And we may be in the closing
days of this administration, but the fight for fairness will
continue well into the future. We hope that others
will continue the effort to secure access to counsel,
including at bail hearings. In moving forward,
we’re going to keep voicing our ongoing support
both for federal and state defender’s programs
including appropriate funding and resources. In Justice Black’s
historic Gideon opinion, he observed that the right
of one charged with a crime to counsel may not be deemed
fundamental and essential in some countries,
but it is in ours. Thank you for what you
all do every day to make our shared obligation to
fulfill that promise a reality. Thank you.

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