Left to Die | The Nation


Left to Die

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Meg Garvey, another pro bono lawyer who has been working with evacuated inmates, isn't feeling patient at all. She started pushing months ago to try to help these clients. "So many of these guys were in here for minor stuff, and when the storm came their communication with their families was completely cut off," she said. "They couldn't be part of keeping their families safe or together. Now the world is changing dramatically while they are in prison. Babies are born. Their grandma dies. Their family resettles in Texas. And they are in for nothing. They are desperate to return to their families."

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Billy Sothern
Billy Sothern, a New Orleans anti-death penalty lawyer and a Soros Justice Media Fellow, is a frequent contributor to...

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As executions resume in the wake of a Supreme Court decision, we are reminded that a life cannot be willfully ended without violence.

The most devastated neighborhood in America makes an ideal backdrop for a morally ambiguous play about abandonment.

Given all the minor things with which people ordinarily run out of patience, like rush-hour traffic and long lines at the bank, it is hard to imagine much patience from people who have been unconstitutionally detained for months after a nightmarish experience of rising water in a locked cell. Certainly, it is inappropriate for their lawyers to be counseling patience while they are wrongfully imprisoned. However, according to Garvey, the prisoners are incredibly patient, and they're grateful for the assistance from the handful of lawyers who offered help without any expectation of compensation and disregarding the turmoil that their own lives had been thrown into by the storm. For the rest of us, that there are a few pro bono lawyers providing a constitutionally mandated service the government is neglecting and has neglected for decades should sting, not give comfort.

New Orleans needs a politically independent public defender's office--one that not only provides the minimum representation guaranteed by the Constitution but that deals holistically with clients, their families and their communities. Such an agency could begin to address the collateral consequences that mass incarceration has on the families and communities where a large percentage of adult men are behind bars. Further, we need public institutions dedicated to the principle that the rights of prisoners are not mere abstractions but guarantees, and that there are actual remedies when those rights are violated. This is imperative in a state where incarceration has become the one-size-fits-all response to social ills caused by failed schools, a decimated economy and meager and crumbling public housing.

Here as elsewhere, such institutions do not need heaps of money. They require instead a change of attitude--whereby people deprived of their personal liberty are still valued and protected by society. In the legal defense context, this means dedicated, full-time public defenders insulated from political pressure, like the Public Defender Service in Washington, DC, or the Bronx Defenders in New York City--offices of true believers who make the adversarial process a challenge to the state's immense power to incarcerate and even kill its citizens.

The storm created opportunities for structural reform in areas where the government has long failed its citizens. With the city's dysfunctional indigent defense almost nonexistent, this may be the only chance in a generation to re-create a major urban public defense system in a manner that addresses the impact of criminalization and mass incarceration on poor families while providing constitutionally mandated services.

New Orleans is a struggling city in one of the poorest parts of the country. We have been flattened by a storm. There are of course many other pressing needs as we rebuild the city and the region. But if we are ever going to be a civilized city, or country, we are going to have to begin to work as hard for the weakest and most maligned among us as we do for the strongest and most sympathetic. If we don't, any of us could one day face the consequences.

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