The American legal system is adversarial, with prosecutors and defense attorneys arguing cases, yet they are two halves that make up the whole. Without strength on both sides of the equation, balance is lost, and justice as well. On the final night of the Citizen’s Police Academy, the class was addressed by the State’s Attorney for Champaign County, Julia Reitz, and the head of the Public Defender’s Office for the county, Randy Rosenbaum.
Usually on TV the prosecutor is called the District Attorney, or DA, which is the name used often in large cities such as New York City, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. Elsewhere, you could have a Prosecuting Attorney, a Circuit Attorney, or (in Illinois) a State’s Attorney. Whatever it’s called, it is an elected office. On the Federal level, you have the U.S. Attorneys, who are appointed to one of the 94 federal districts across the country. (For clarity’s sake, and since I’m writing this in Illinois, I’ll use State’s Attorney.)
Criminal prosecutions are only part of the duties of the State’s Attorney. They are the lawyer for the city and/or county government on any legal issue, including civil and labor law. The office could be asked to give guidance on a construction project, and if the city is sued the State’s Attorney would be its defense attorney in civil court.
There are three jurisdictions that the State’s Attorney deals with:
- City (or County) Ordinances. These are regulations enacted by the local government and are usually punished by fines. Underage drinking can be handled in this way.
- State Prosecutions. The office enforces of state laws, divided into misdemeanors and felonies. There are 3 or 4 different classes for misdemeanors and felonies, designated by letters for misdemeanors and numbers for felonies (except for the highest level felony – Class X – which carries a 6 to 30 year sentence without parole).
- Federal Offenses. Generally these are crimes that involve (either physically or potentially) the crossing of state lines, such as illegal drugs or child pornography.
It’s possible that a person could be charged with both a state offense as well as a federal one. The State’s Attorney could choose to bump the case up to the Feds, or keep it on the state level.
With the way laws are written, by politicians who don’t always think about consequences or reconciling the laws they pass with laws already on the books, prosecutorial discretion is important. For instance, in Illinois if you punched a person inside your house, that’s misdemeanor battery. If you punched them outside your house, it’s a felony. There is also no specific shoplifting law; it is either Theft, which is a Class A Misdemeanor, or Burglary, which is a Class 2 Felony. The prosecutor has a wide leeway on how to proceed with a case, or even to choose not to prosecute. A factor in this is the arrestee’s record – if they’re a first-time or a repeat offender. The prosecutor can also go against the wishes of the victim. In domestic battery cases, the spouse may not want to press charges, but the prosecutor can go ahead with the case if they feel it’s in the best interest of the community.
Some offenses, such as motor vehicle law violations, allow the person to post bond immediately, but for most arrests it means a night in jail until the hearing before a judge the next afternoon. The State’s Attorney’s office receives all the arrest reports and must be ready for the arraignment (including on the weekend, if that county has a weekend court). During the morning before court, the State’s Attorney will go through all of the arrest reports and decide how to proceed, including assigning a lawyer from the office to pursue the case.
The State’s Attorney does bear a larger burden than simply prosecuting. They take an oath “to serve the needs of victims and the community without depriving defendants of their rights under the law, and to adhere to the highest ethical standards in seeking justice – not merely seeking to convict.” (from the Champaign County State’s Attorney mission statement ) They must seek the truth in a case.
Along with marshaling the office’s lawyers to handle the caseload, the State’s Attorney will also prosecute cases themselves. In Champaign County, Ms. Reitz usually handles child abuse and neglect cases, which can lead to termination of parental rights and adoption. Sometimes a case will generate a range of charges. Recently, a man was suspected of distributing drugs. The State’s Attorney helped the police get a warrant to place a GPS tracking device on the man’s vehicle. Analyzing his travel led them to two houses and the seizure of a large quantity of drugs. In one of the houses a woman was living with her 5-year-old child; drugs were found hidden in the child’s room. Along with the drug charges, Ms. Reitz pursued child endangerment charges against the mother.
The Miranda warning includes the right of a defendant to an attorney, and that one will be appointed if the person cannot afford representation. It was enshrined in the US Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in the case Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963. But in effect it makes the public defender’s office, in the words of Mr. Rosenbaum, the “bastard stepchild of the legal system.” While the office has a lot of autonomy, the Chief Public Defender is appointed and works “at the pleasure of the judges” before whom they appear.
It is one cog in the legal wheel, but it is a vital one for the protection of rights. A good legal system has both a good prosecutor and a good defender. In Illinois, a public defender must be appointed for larger counties while in smaller counties a judge can appoint a PD as needed. The PD is there to help the indigent as well as the working poor who qualify under the Federal poverty guidelines. It is not necessarily free. The judge can assess a fee of up to $300.00 for representation, based on the defendant’s financial situation. Still, that’s less than an hour’s fee for some private defense attorneys.
When you don’t have a formal PD system, miscarriages of justice can abound. An example is the State of Texas, which until very recently did not have a public defender system. The presiding judge would simply appoint a private attorney to handle the case, but it could be any attorney; a real estate lawyer could be assigned to defend a capital murder case. That’s one reason a tenth of the people on death row are in Texas jails. (The highest death row population is actually in California, but that’s because they’ve only executed 13 inmates since 1976, and haven’t had an execution in the last six years. By contrast, Texas has executed 482 inmates since 1976, including 35 in the last 2 ½ years, a third of all the executions in that time.)
The budget for each Public Defender’s Office comes from the county, which means funds are limited and rarely increased. The office is often a triage center, trying to ration resources.
There is no typical day in the office. The lawyers will spend time negotiating with the prosecutors, which is their most important work. They can also gather information about the crime or the defendant to try and change a prosecutor’s mind. While the prosecutor sees the victim, the PD sees their client, and must humanize them.
Often times, though, the hardest person the public defenders deal with is their client. Occasionally the PD might not meet the client until just before the trial. If you go to a courthouse you might see the defendant and lawyer in a hurried discussion just before the case is called. That’s not because of a lack of effort on the PD’s part. They try to have monthly conferences with their clients, but the client may have left a bad phone number or no longer be living at the address on the arrest report, so the PD can’t find them until the day of trial.
While the PDs are specialists in criminal law and are required to represent their client zealously, the clients often have unrealistic expectations, and they can be their worst enemy. Mr. Rosenbaum mentioned one robbery case that was a strong case for the defense. The defendant, however, wanted the lawyers to get video from a surveillance camera that he said would show he was innocent. The PD said they had a good case as it was, and didn’t get the video. The client wrote to the trial judge to complain and try to get the video into the record. The judge said, “Fine, you want it, you’ve got it.” Of course the video clearly showed the client committing the crime and he was convicted.
The PD office labors under a huge volume of cases. While the American Bar Association’s guidelines say a public defender should have no more than 150 cases a year, in Champaign the caseload works out to about 300 felony cases per year for each lawyer in the office. Even with that, they do the best job that they can, and provide a yang to the prosecutor’s ying, keeping the scales of justice in balance.