Lawyers' role as advocates for the unjustly accused

Dean Crawford reflects on information shared at a Department of Public Advocacy event.
Lawyers' role as advocates for the unjustly accused

I am at the Kentucky Bar Association Annual Convention in Lexington this week. My time here began with a reminder of how important lawyers are to protecting the rule of law and the principles we most value.

This basic lesson came home to me yesterday at the Department of Public Advocacy’s annual celebration and recognition lunch. A bright spot for the Brandeis community was the moment when our 1995 alum Chip Rogalinski received the DPA’s In Re: Gault award (in memory of the 1967 Supreme Court case that awarded minor criminal defendants many of the same due process rights as adults); Chip is a trial attorney in the DPA's Bullitt County Trial Office.

The luncheon also provided powerful reminders of the reality that while our system usually punishes the guilty, it can also can fail us – and that lawyers serve to protect the rights of those unjustly accused. This was amply demonstrated in the moving testimonials from wrongly accused citizens who spent years of their lives serving sentences for crimes they did not commit. The work of the Kentucky Innocence Project in helping to reverse these convictions is impressive and important.

The event was closed by Justice & Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley. Secretary Tilley lamented the fact that Kentucky, unlike most states, relies not just upon statewide institutions but also upon 76 “full-service jails” to house its incarcerated population – and that many of them are 30 percent above capacity. Secretary Tilley described shameful conditions, acknowledging service delivery failures such as the fact that some inmates sleep on floors because there is insufficient bed space. With 25,000 people incarcerated, Secretary Tilley said that Kentucky has the ninth highest rate of incarceration in the country.

There is important work for lawyers here, too, as advocates for more humane prison conditions, and to work with other stakeholders in the Commonwealth to reduce the size of the prison population. These are not easy challenges, but lawyers will be central to addressing them.