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Laurence Tribe, Senior Counselor for Access to Justice, Speaks at the Bronx Defenders Annual Gala Dinner


New York, NY
United States

Thank you, Robin, for that kind introduction, and especially for your own tireless service and commitment to your clients and to the cause of justice. Quite frankly, although I’d be delighted to accept any award that puts me in the company of my good friend Judge Judith Kaye, the great jurist and public servant who received the Partner in Pursuit of Justice Award last year, it is a singular honor to be given this award by the Bronx Defenders, an organization that has been at the forefront of defining what it means to deliver quality indigent defense services. I’m enormously pleased that we at the Justice Department are supporting your important work through the Office of Justice Programs and are thereby helping you expand the reach of the holistic community oriented model to defender agencies across the country through the Center for Holistic Defense. I’m conveying not only my own sentiments, but those of the Attorney General when I say, “Congratulations on all you’ve accomplished so far. We look forward to what’s still to come.”

It’s also a pleasure to be honored together with Edward Tapia, who has overcome overwhelming obstacles to break bread with us this evening. Mr. Tapia, your story is a reminder to us all that an individual’s entanglement with the state’s levers of justice can exact devastating and often unanticipated human costs – to that individual, the individual’s family, and the larger community – that we ignore to our great peril.

The Access to Justice Initiative that I have led since its creation in March of this year has been tasked by the President and the Attorney General with a broad and in some ways amorphous mission – that of enhancing access to justice. We define such access not in a narrow or technical sense that focuses simply on lawyers and courts, but in a broad sense that looks at how well people can achieve fair outcomes in matters that are of critical importance to the way they live – issues as diverse as mortgage foreclosure, child custody, and immigration proceedings.

A key priority of the Access to Justice Initiative is to address the crisis in indigent defense, something the Attorney General and the President deem to be of critical importance in light of the perennial deficiencies in providing even minimally adequate legal services – legal services that meet the constitutional requirements set decades ago by Gideon and Gault – to those who are accused of crimes and threatened with imprisonment.

In addition, you may know that my office is also charged with identifying and implementing ways to improve the provision of civil legal assistance to the working poor and to the middle class, and to focus with particular care upon the most vulnerable populations among us, including immigrants, the elderly, minors, and veterans.

So, we’re studying ways to improve both the criminal and civil justice systems: two tasks I’m tempted to describe as equally discrete, manageable, and simple ones for a law professor and his small staff to tackle in a few short months without either grant-making authority or enforcement power.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I find that temptation easy to resist. Beyond that, I can say one thing for sure: Even if these tasks were “manageable” and “simple,” they’d be far from “discrete.” For the truth is that we can’t meaningfully address the problems of indigent defense standing alone or in a vacuum: Problems in human relations are almost invariably rooted in systemic societal failings or weaknesses, and we must work collaboratively, across disciplines, and with every community stakeholder whom we can bring to the table to address the criminal justice crisis in our communities.

In other words, you – and by “you” I mean “we” – can’t effectively address the crisis in indigent defense without thinking about the failings of our civil justice system – our system for delivering the services that people need to live healthy and productive lives and fairly resolving the disputes that arise in the process of seeking those services. You cannot effectively represent your client accused of burglary, robbery, or worse without understanding why she was evicted from her home, why she failed to receive the mental health counseling or other benefits to which she was entitled as a veteran, why the educational system failed her, what even a single conviction might have done or might yet do to her immigration status, and, as a study released earlier this year appears to show, how that conviction is likely to cripple her ability to escape poverty for decades to come.

Addressing these interrelated problems is a tall order, as I’m constantly reminded by others (and as I just as constantly remind myself). The challenges are daunting, but that’s hardly a reason not to try. For I’m absolutely certain that our failure to address them will lead to even greater problems. What’s needed is the support and engagement of all stakeholders – including the judges, prosecutors, advocates, community leaders, and leaders of the private bar filling this room – to tackle these complex challenges together.

It is my strong belief that only holistic, multidisciplinary efforts are likely to be effective at closing the justice gap in this country – an approach that I call “person-centered” rather than “problem centered.” I believe that innovative holistic/community-oriented models – models that put the interrelated needs of clients first, that seek to break the cycle of repeat contact with the criminal justice system, and that engage diverse partners to provide a diverse but connected set of solutions – have a real chance to provide significant human and economic dividends over time. The Access to Justice Initiative is exploring ways to measure those dividends, and to identify and promote creative, cross-disciplinary innovations in this great endeavor.

To that end, pending the outcome of the 2011 appropriations process, we plan to work with the Justice Department’s National Institute of Justice, or “NIJ,” to issue a new grant solicitation in Fiscal Year 2011 for indigent defense related research, the first such joint solicitation ever. Currently, public defenders are hamstrung by a lack of robust research showing not only that good defenders are necessary to guard against injustice, but also that innovative diversion programs can save more than they cost, both in intangible human terms and in tangible financial terms, and that well-designed prevention efforts conceived and carried out by community stakeholders both in juvenile systems and in their adult counterparts are more than worth their considerable costs by virtually any measure.

We are also on the ground in jurisdictions like New Orleans, where we are working with the Public Defender, the District Attorney, the Sheriff, criminal court judges, and the Mayor to implement pathbreaking criminal justice reforms – reforms that include the design of a new pre-trial release program – that go well beyond the classic cops and corrections model of arrest, conviction, and long-term incarceration, a costly cycle that leads to nowhere good.

In a similar spirit, my office is working closely with the Interagency Council on the Homeless to expand and promote alternatives to criminalization for the chronically homeless, by inviting stakeholders to the table with federal partners such as HUD and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to discuss best practices and synergies in the fields of policing, courtroom diversion, and seamless systems of care.

Nor have we overlooked the impact that holistic, multidisciplinary efforts can have in the civil arena. Just last month, working with the U.S. Commerce Department, my Initiative participated in the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s announcement of over six million dollars in grant awards to innovative projects in North Carolina and Washington State that will use broadband technology to increase access to justice for under-served communities, including the rural poor and those living on Indian reservations. The grants will be used to create public computing and web-based videoconferencing capabilities in neighborhood-based institutions such as health centers, public libraries, community centers, low-income housing complexes, and historically black colleges and universities. The computing centers will in turn provide a one-stop location for historically marginalized populations to access the assistance available through social services organizations, legal aid offices, courts, and government agencies (including public defender offices), while increasing computer literacy among some of our most vulnerable populations and providing personal assistance to those who have yet to achieve that literacy.

These projects, with their reliance on and response to community input and person-focused solutions that bring together varied yet related services, represent the type of thinking that I believe animates the Center for Holistic Defense. Although it sounds like a cliché, a great deal comes down to being smart about criminal and civil justice, rather than simply saying that we are "tough" on crime in order to earn our “justice” stripes. I am honored and deeply grateful to be recognized as a partner with all of you in thinking more creatively and holistically about the criminal justice system – and about the larger legal system – civil as well as criminal – in which it is embedded.

I look forward to our ongoing collaboration as you help foster the development of exciting programs that can truly transform our legal system and, in the end, help narrow the gap between our aspirations to justice and the justice we actually deliver to our citizens. The Access to Justice initiative is dedicated to sustainable efforts to narrow that gap, the gap between legal rhetoric and legal reality, so that “Equal Justice Under Law” becomes not a tantalizing hope but a gratifying truth.

Thank you so much for being here, and for all that you do.

Access to Justice
Updated April 28, 2016