Justice should be for everyone

Dylan Roof’s public defender, Ashley Pennington, leaves federal court after Roof’s arraignment hearing last July on federal charges in the June 17 attack at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Some people charged with lesser crimes do not have the benefit of a public defender. Grace Beahm/Staff

“Justice for all” is the ultimate descriptor of the United States as stated in our Pledge of Allegiance: “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Just as “justice” means equity and fairness, “all” means everyone — including defendants in courts of law.

So the mere possibility that some defendants in South Carolina are not being provided lawyers to represent them in court appearances — or are being represented by lawyers with ridiculously heavy case loads — is distressing.

Ashley Pennington, the chief public defender in Charleston and Berkeley counties, said the person in his office who handles minor criminal charges deals with 750 new clients a year. The accepted standard nationally is 400.

Anecdotal evidence of the problem, discovered by the ACLU, should be reason enough for the state and local governments to investigate whether the system of justice is working for all, including people who cannot afford to pay a lawyer.

The problems the ACLU found were mostly in lower courts and bond hearings — judgments that can still have serious impact on defendants’ lives when they are required to spend time in jail, jeopardizing their jobs, or to pay fines they cannot afford.

The larger problem is that, in our judicial system, everyone is supposed to be treated equally. It appears that is not always the case with the poor.

Further, the possibility grows that judgments will not be fair. In some lower courts, judges are not required to have law degrees, and prosecutors are often police officers.

Then there’s the money. According to a report Monday by Andrew Knapp, the state spends $16 million a year for public defenders. Counties supplement that amount. But properly funding the courts would take another $10 million.

Cities have to pay more for their own courts.

Many who appear in bond court are unaware that they have a right to be freed on their own recognizance unless they pose a danger or a risk of flight. So they spend time in jail.

Local officials are hoping for a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. It would pay for a public defender dedicated to bond court.

The effort is commendable.

But in no way should it be seen as an alternative to the state adequately funding its judicial system — prosecution and defense. At present, South Carolina spends three times more for prosecutors than it does for public defenders. And while the two have different needs, it is no secret that public defenders have been shortchanged for years.

An assessment of the judicial system also should include statewide court rules. For example. one rule instructs judges at the local level to inform defendants of their right to free representation only when their cases are called to trial. That’s often too late.

The ACLU has found situations like South Carolina’s all across the country.

Providing equal justice for all is a basic tenet of the United States.

The question should not be if South Carolina will address any inequities, but how soon it will.