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Public Defenders: Good Lawyers Working to Dispel Disparities
Published:
10/30/2013 1:46:18 PM


Ashley Pennington
 

By Barney Blakeney



Statistics show that one in four Black men in America are somehow involved in the criminal justice system, either incarcerated or on probation or parole. And one in three Black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives. It’s a complex problem, says Ninth Judicial Circuit Chief Public Defender Ashley Pennington, but Black men can expect to disproportionately be negatively affected by the criminal justice system.

According to S.C. Dept. of Corrections statistics 66 percent of inmates incarcerated as of June 30, or some 13,600 of the total approximately 22,000 inmates were Black.

About 10 percent of the department’s inmates are from Charleston County and about 11 percent of Black male inmates are from Richland County. They represent the two counties with the highest percentage of inmates.

Charleston County Chief Deputy at the Al Cannon Detention Center said Blacks constitute about two-thirds of the detention center’s average daily inmate population.

Studies show the war of drugs has exacerbated the racial disparities within the criminal justice system. According to one study from 1999-2005 Blacks constituted only about 13 percent of illegal drug users, but made up some 46 percent of those convicted for drug offenses.

Local civil rights organizations such as the S.C. ACLU and the NAACP say racial profiling contribute to the disparities. In the City of North Charleston Blacks are twice as likely to be stopped for traffic violations that whites.

Pennington said, in addition to racial profiling some socio-economic factors contribute to the disparities. Police patrols saturate low income communities where more crime occurs. Those communities tend to be predominantly minority , he said. And low income individuals tend to have access to fewer resources that offer alternatives to convictions and incarceration.

Citing the criminality of illegal drugs, he said kids arrested for illegal drug violations who have financial resources end up in treatment while those without resources end up in jail.

And as involvement with the criminal justice system becomes more pervasive over generations, criminal behavior becomes more normal and acceptable, Pennington said.

Families get eaten up by an unfair and unequal economic and criminal justice system, he said. Prosecutors, judges and lawyers tend to be empathetic towards people who look like them and the result is 70-80 percent of the public defender’s clients are Black.

Each of the public defender’s 25 attorneys have between 35-50 clients who are in jail and carry case loads that number between 120-160 cases. In rural communities the burden is heavier and some communities have no public defenders. Pennington is adamant about referring to the numbers as people and not cases.

To those people and others it may seem the wheels of justice, or injustice, turn too slowly. It takes an average of about a year for the accused to get to trial, Pennington said. Clients get a good lawyer through the public defender’s office, but they have to wait.

Eliminating disparities in the criminal justice system is a complex problem with many layers, but there are people working to eradicate them, Pennington said.

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