The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion To change our racist legal system, we need to support public defenders

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It was surprising that Abbe Smith defended the right to counsel by appealing to an abstract sense of duty in her March 21 Thursday Opinion essay, “Why lawyers represent rapists.” Or that she would invoke former secretary of state Hillary Clinton as a paragon of dutiful defense work. Ms. Clinton defended her representation of a man charged with a sex offense in 1975 by telling the public 40 years later that she had asked the judge to take her off the case.

Instead, Ms. Smith should have used the uproar at Harvard University as an opportunity to emphasize that it is primarily poor people of color who are targeted for arrest, prosecution and incarceration in this country. Any robust defense of the right to counsel must advance the idea that it is fundamentally right to powerfully resist our racist criminal legal system and the mass incarceration it has generated.

Harvey Weinstein is in no danger of going without counsel. To truly vindicate the right to counsel, we need to remake our racist criminal legal system. One way to do that would be to strengthen our system of public defense. Public defenders are fighting for pay parity with the government’s prosecutors.

There is a groundswell of support for radically changing our criminal legal system. The public is ready to grapple with the grim realities of our carceral state and will support the work of public defenders.

Benjamin West, New York

The writer is a public defender.