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Director Rachel Rossi Delivers Keynote Address at Atlanta's John Marshall Law School Commemorating National Public Defense Day


Atlanta, GA
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Good afternoon and thank you for that warm introduction.

A special thank you to John Marshall School of Law, to Dean Gatewood and Dean Harrison and to Professor Jonathan Rapping for all your work to convene this day of impactful panels and engagements. And I have to acknowledge the Office for Access to Justice’s (ATJ) Senior Counsel and State and Local Public Defense lead Nikhil Ramnaney for your creativity and strategy in the development of support for public defense and for your work in planning this Law School Tour, our Federal Defender Detailee, Brook Antonio and Lauren Lambert, thank you for your heart and dedication.

We are delighted to join so many public defense professionals, leaders and law students today, all focused on how public defenders can lead efforts to ensure justice for all.

I am honored to serve as the Director of the Office for Access to Justice at DOJ — an office established by Attorney General Garland at the end of 2021, with a mission to ensure access to the promises and protections of our civil and criminal legal systems for all communities.

We break down barriers to equal justice under law, the founding principle and enduring promise of the Justice Department and the underpinning of our justice system.

Simply put — we believe that justice belongs to everyone. If access to it depends on who you are, your income level, where you live or the language you use, we cannot call it justice.

And part of our mission is to support public defense — a critical component of ensuring justice can be accessed by low-income communities.

We know the story. In 1963 the Supreme Court held in Gideon v. Wainwright, that states have a constitutional obligation under the 14th Amendment to provide Sixth Amendment lawyers to those who are indigent and criminally accused.

Yet 61 years later this week, we’ve continued to see criminal justice systems struggle to ensure access to this promise for all.

Last year, as we took stock of Gideon’s promise on its 60th anniversary, our office wanted to start in the field, across the country to speak directly with public defenders, impacted communities, advocates and others on the front lines.

We were honored to be joined by Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco to launch a National Public Defense Day tour in Miami, joined by U.S. Attorney Markenzy Lapointe for the Southern District of Florida. There, the Deputy Attorney General announced a comprehensive, 100-day review to ensure consistent, timely access to counsel in Federal Bureau of Prisons pretrial facilities.

We traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where we met with the organization, Still She Rises, and local public defenders to discuss racial equity and holistic defense models of public defense for mothers.

We then visited the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and met with tribal defenders to discuss unique issues in public defense in Tribal jurisdictions.

We next stopped in Las Vegas, Nevada, joined by Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. of the Justice Department's Criminal Division and U.S. Attorney Jason M. Frierson for the District of Nevada — a former public defender himself — at the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada to discuss with law students the importance of public defense careers. We announced a collaborative effort with ATJ and the Criminal Division’s Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development and Training program to visit with and learn about Ghana’s legal aid commission and the commission’s public defender division, and to consider the possibility of study exchange visits to the United States.

In Nashville, Tennessee, we were joined by Assistant Attorney General Amy Solomon of the Office of Justice Programs to visit with members of the Public Defender Forensic Social Work Program and Nashville Public Defenders to discuss resource needs, and to announce the issuance of a joint dear colleague letter encouraging use of Byrne-JAG federal grant funding to resource public defense.

We concluded the national tour in Des Moines, Iowa, where then Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta and U.S. Attorney Richard D. Westphal for the Southern District of Iowa joined us to meet with the Iowa State Public Defender and contract attorneys to explore the needs of bar panel and contract defense attorneys, learn about issues faced by rural defenders and discuss the assessment of fees for public defense services.

We then conducted a law school tour across the country, to specifically understand the recruitment issues and promote public defense careers. We traveled to Concord, New Hampshire; Portland, Maine; Missoula, Montana; Seattle, Washington; Dallas and of course, we conclude the tour here today in Atlanta. We’ve been privileged to meet with law students, undergraduate students, public defense professionals and prosecutors, court leaders and academics.

And we listened at every stop. What we learned and what we saw, confirmed that access to public defense continues to be elusive and unequal.

We heard how barriers to accessing clients continue to exist, including at early stages of criminal proceedings and in detention facilities, and that in many places people waive their right to counsel and plead guilty without an opportunity to have (let alone meaningfully consult with) counsel that they are entitled to under the Sixth Amendment.

We saw the need for criminal justice reform policy conversations to be connected to conversations about support for public defense, that we cannot consider how to reduce defender caseloads without simultaneously focusing on the high numbers of people shuttling through criminal legal systems.

We heard from aspiring public defenders and young public defenders about their desire to tackle systemic racism and mass incarceration, and the often-untapped power of public defense offices to create pathways and avenues for systemic advocacy.

We heard from public defenders that they need resources to address burnout, and we learned of and explored ideas to develop burnout prevention programs and resources.

We saw how resources are severely needed to support public defense as public defenders are underpaid, face crippling law school debt and lack pay parity with others similarly situated in the criminal justice system workforce.

Not only that, we heard how public defenders continue to face extremely high caseloads with heavy workloads that often prevent them from providing effective legal representation, and this is exacerbated by a lack sufficient support personnel like investigators, paralegals, social workers, and administrative staff.

We also traveled to rural areas and tribal jurisdictions, where we learned about significant and unique challenges faced by defenders, endemic to these unique environments that are also frequently legal desserts. This includes housing shortages, transportation challenges, lack of broadband, healthcare access, poverty and lack of economic opportunity. We also learned how recruitment issues are exacerbated in many of these areas, especially to attract students of color or from other diverse backgrounds.

We heard how contract defense models are often overlooked, although they form the majority of public defense representation across the country, and efforts to support public defense, like loan forgiveness, or expanded resources to promote innovation must account for this reality of representation.

We discussed the significant recruitment and retention crisis that continues to plague the profession, and how the contract defense bar is experiencing its own unique pipeline, recruitment and retention issues as the bar is graying, and fewer people attorneys are taking these types of cases and going into this field.

We also talked with impacted communities about how they often feel the brunt of these gaps, high caseloads and workloads can lead to rude and rushed public defenders, and how providing defenders the resources they need, can help them to zealously represent people with dignity.

And independence continues to be a critical element of public defense, no matter the model, but can frequently be overlooked or worse, disregarded.

We didn’t just listen, we decided to take action in response to what we learned and saw in the field.

This week as we commemorate National Public Defense Day, the Office for Access to Justice announced the launch of the Public Defense Resource Hub, a one-stop shop with comprehensive resources and materials to support individuals and organizations involved in public defense.

The Hub will collect existing resources for professionals providing public defense services, public defense commissions and related organizations from across the federal government and develop additional tools to help defenders access necessary resources, research, and guidance to support the constitutional right to counsel.

The Public Defense Resource Hub offers numerous benefits and introduces a novel approach to supporting public defense from the Justice Department.

It will establish centralized access. By consolidating all funding information, toolkits, research, advocacy resources, and other relevant materials, the Hub provides a one-stop destination for resources to support individuals and organizations involved in public defense.

It will promote efficiency. Users can navigate explore a wide range of resources without needing to navigate multiple websites or sources, saving time and effort in finding pertinent information.

It will facilitate transparency. Hosting funding information on the Hub promotes transparency in resource allocation for public defense, ensuring that criminal justice stakeholders are aware of available funding opportunities and committed to support equitable distribution.

It will encourage and support increased resources to be allocated to public defense. Through better transparency and clarity surrounding resources that do exist, the Hub will also demonstrate what resources are sorely lacking, promoting increased resources to support public defense. And it will empower public defenders with tools and resources to strengthen advocacy efforts, thereby improving the quality of multidisciplinary public defense services.

And the Hub will promote collaboration and innovation. It will foster collaboration and innovation among public defenders, policymakers, researchers and impacted communities.

The Hub will be one of many initiatives our office will lead to support public defense as we grow and build our work. And we will continue to populate it with resources and tools as we hear directly from those in the field about what they need.

But the story of what we’ve seen in the field doesn’t end there. Yes — we saw the struggle and we saw the need on our tour stops across the country. But we also saw the resiliency, strength, creativity and commitment of the public defense profession, which I can confidently say is stronger than ever today.

We met with so many public defense professionals who consistently said despite the emotional toll and the resource gaps, they would never choose a different career. They consistently reaffirmed for us the privilege to work in such a noble profession.

And we also heard from prosecutors and judges about the value of public defense and the need to support and resource public defenders as a critical component of securing equal justice under law.

We visited and toured an innovative representation holistic defense model, that demonstrated reduced racial disparities and improved outcomes by representing mothers not only in criminal matters but also on municipal, parent defense, eviction and expungement cases.

We saw collaborations between public defense professionals and social workers and met with clients who found healing and support through social worker assistance, helping them to succeed after going through the criminal justice process and to not end up back in jail.

And we heard clients who talked about public defenders who changed their lives because they took the extra time to find additional resources, and to explain the law and situation they faced, treating them with dignity and respect.

We also saw rural and Tribal communities deploying new and innovative approaches to problems their community are facing, including navigators and peer or lay advocates and comprehensive re-entry programs, and we learned about an adaptable rural defender unit that sends public defenders to counties in rural remote areas that need the most help.

And, of course, here at John Marshall Law School, with Gideon’s Promise and the historic leadership-first from its co-founder Jon Rapping and now through the current Executive Director Zanele Ngubeni we see an innovative support and training program that encourages multidisciplinary and client-centered legal representation for public defenders across the country.

As I close, I have to say that I have never been more optimistic of our power to close the justice gap and see more clearly what justice for all looks like.

And it is because, as we think about the future of our justice systems, that future is in our hands. If we want to report different data and outcomes, we cannot simply proceed with the same ideas and strategies — it’s on all of us to think bigger.

So much has changed across the country, because courageous defenders have stood up to fight for new policies, strategies and approaches.

That is the very spirit public defenders bring to the table. The refusal to accept systemic inequities, the creativity to find solutions, and the tenacity to not give up — all with a heart for some of the most vulnerable members of our communities.

As you think about becoming a public defender, the office you might join and the way the work looks can be something completely different from anything we know exists today.

If we truly want to see justice for all, it will require us to reimagine our systems, and to push for visions of justice that others may not yet see as possible. To not accept the sobering data our justice system continues to produce.

You can be the ones who bring that new vision. As Angela Davis said, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”

If you want to be a public defender or work in criminal justice systems, but you are afraid of burnout — you can be the person who develops the strategy, program or initiative that promotes mental wellness uniquely geared toward the trauma experienced by defenders.

If you want to be a public defender or work in criminal justice, but you don’t want to be a part of a system that has systemically failed so many underserved and marginalized communities — perhaps you can develop solutions to elevate the perspectives and experiences of public defenders-who see the fault lines across our systems-to promote strategic reforms.

It won’t be easy, it may take time and patience, and it always requires careful strategy to envision and create change across systems. In fact, it would be so much easier to remain on the outside and to criticize and point out the failures of the system.

But when you join in this fight, when you bring your creativity and new ideas, you can help law enforcement, prosecutors, public defenders, advocates, policymakers, court leaders and other justice system actors continue to imagine beyond our systems as they exist and work toward new visions of what access to justice for all can look like.

We have so much more to do. And so much further to go. But as you consider your role, and whether you’ll join the public defense profession, I hope you will dream big, believe more is possible, and fearlessly join in the mission to forge a new vision for justice.

Access to Justice
Updated March 21, 2024