by Rob Poggenklass, Tony Dunn Legal Fellow
In 2014, approximately 2.2 million people live in jails and prisons in the United States. Here in Virginia, hundreds of thousands of citizens cannot exercise their fundamental right to vote because of a criminal conviction. In courtrooms across the Commonwealth, a criminal defendant who may not be able to put food on the table for his or her family still may not qualify as “too poor to afford an attorney.” Public defenders who are dedicated to helping their clients nonetheless carry enormous caseloads that may prevent them from doing valuable investigation before going to trial. A lawyer appointed by the court to assist a defendant will be paid one of the lowest rates in the country. To make matters worse, because of backwards court rules that limit defendants’ access to evidence, that same lawyer probably will not have access to even the most basic tools for preparing his or her client’s defense, such as the police report and witness statements.
When I started law school at William & Mary in 2007, I had never set foot in a criminal courtroom, but I knew that I wanted to become a civil rights lawyer. During an internship at the Capital Defender’s Office in northern Virginia after my first year, I learned that our constitutional rights are won and lost every day in criminal courtrooms across the country. That is why for the last 3 ½ years I worked as a public defender in Newport News fighting alongside criminal defendants to protect those rights. There, I represented clients who faced charges ranging from driving on a suspended license and simple possession of marijuana to armed robbery and first-degree murder. In a system often more concerned with swift punishment and the rights of accusers, I witnessed firsthand how easily the rights of defendants are forgotten and discarded.
Last week, I joined the ACLU of Virginia as the Tony Dunn Legal Fellow, where for the next two years I will work to reform Virginia’s broken criminal justice system. When drafting the Bill of Rights, our Founding Fathers sought to stack the deck in favor of criminal defendants – and for good reason. Since then, centuries of legislation, regulation, and court decisions have chipped away at those rights, shifting the advantage back to the government. I am grateful for the opportunity to work for an organization that is committed to the idea that any reform of our criminal justice system must start with protecting the rights of criminal defendants. As the newest staff member of the ACLU of Virginia, I look forward to advocating for these essential rights for all Virginians.