Suffering the Smoldering Wrath: On Allen Goodman’s “Everyone Against Us”
By Dana GarcettiJune 17, 2023
Everyone Against Us: Public Defenders and the Making of American Justice by Allen Goodman
The need for public defenders has never been greater. The New York Times recently reported that in 2022, nearly one in three American adults had a criminal record. In his 2021 book, Presumed Guilty: How the Supreme Court Empowered the Police and Subverted Civil Rights, constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky notes that the United States carceral system—which consists of jails, detention centers (juvenile and immigrant), and prisons (for-profit and government-run)—imprisons an estimated two million people annually, a 500 percent increase since 1970.
Goodman tells a very personal tale of nine years spent in the American criminal justice system, through travesties and victories, large and small. He lays out, in literally black-and-white terms, the circumstances that brought several individuals to court against a backdrop of systemic intransigence and often callous disregard for their humanity. Although Goodman uses the term “criminal justice system,” the more nuanced term preferred by social justice advocates nationally is “criminal legal system.” Breonna Taylor, Tyre Nichols, and George Floyd experienced anything but justice in their contact with law enforcement. The semantic shift is a nod to implicit biases and the systemic violence that many people in the criminal justice system fail to see, refuse to see, or insist doesn’t exist.
Goodman’s book describes the criminal justice system at one point in time in one county, but his experience will resonate with anyone currently practicing in a public defender office in a highly populous county in the United States. An assistant public defender in Cook County, Illinois, from 1996 to 2004, Goodman introduces himself in the book’s preface, outlines the scope of the reminiscences to follow, and cautions the reader that “some of this stuff is pretty dark.” From his first encounter with a client to the moments when some clients received their guilty verdict from a jury and were escorted from the courtroom in handcuffs, Goodman skillfully weaves a true tale of “insightful” advocacy and “compelling” conclusions.
What is apparent in all these cases is that the significance of 1963’s Gideon verdict to the practice of criminal defense cannot be understated. For the first 160 years of American history, the Bill of Rights was deemed to apply only to the federal government, not to state governments. States had their own constitutions, which did not always mirror the federal one. The Gideon ruling was quickly understood to affect states. Immediately, concern was voiced: was the American public prepared to pay in tax dollars for more legal services in the pursuit of equitable access to justice? The answer since then has been a less-than-resounding yes. States often choose the most inexpensive way to meet the obligation imposed by Gideon. Goodman’s chronicle shows how repeated underfunding of public defenders makes the fight for a more level playing field in the criminal courtroom a constant struggle: “Prosecutors win an overwhelming percentage of criminal trials due to the combination of unambiguous political favoritism and incomparable investigative advantage.” In contrast, public defenders face an “endless supply of complex clients and legal issues” and might easily “read upward of a thousand police reports each month.” But marshaling evidence to present an effective defense can be a Sisyphean task because caseload levels and judicial schedules mean that cases can take so long to come to court that by the time they do, evidence crucial to the defense has been destroyed.
From watching multiple iterations of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation on television, members of the American public may think they know how criminal law works. But television producers prize quickly unfolding revelations and 30-minute solutions over the slower pace of real-life, drawn-out, sometimes downright boring courtroom events. Goodman’s book provides a bird’s-eye view of those parts of the law that television often leaves out. That is not to say that the facts of Goodman’s selected cases were humdrum. Far from it. His clients’ experiences evoke indignation, horror, and sadness. One client found himself facing decades in prison because he was found guilty of a “strict liability” crime, meaning his conduct had no legal defense. Another walked free after a key witness demonstrated such racism that even the prosecutor rolled her eyes before the jury voted to acquit. Others were convicted, and even as Goodman compartmentalizes into different mental spaces his legal strategy from the facts of each case, he acknowledges the vicarious trauma that comes from knowing that horrible suffering has been caused by “some combination of learned sadism and inherent defect”: a realization that “will break you.”
There is nothing glamorous about the job of public defender. It is “a career that goes to the heart of protecting rights and freedom, while still being fanatically disliked, disfavored, and dismissed.” Goodman paints a vivid picture of what it is like to be one, especially in a big city with high arrest rates. He draws us in to the sights, sounds, and smells of the criminal legal system, forcing us to experience it with him because otherwise we might prefer to avoid it and thus avoid questioning its presumptions. He describes the smell of arraignment court as having been “simmered in the rank atmosphere of a convection oven of stench.” Hundreds of people may be waiting for their first post-arrest appearance in front of a judge, and they are “an emotional mix of the sleepy, hungover, strung-out, pissed-off, scared, and mentally ill,” and, at this point, presumed innocent. After an arrest, a person is entitled to be brought before a judge in a hearing who will inform them of the crimes they have been charged with and will establish “the monetary cost of their temporary freedom”—that is, whether they will have a bail amount attached to their charges. Persons arrested await this arraignment hearing in windowless, glaringly lit, drab, secure rooms, colloquially known as “lockups,” either attached to jails or in large courthouses. Courthouse lockups “behind-the-scenes” are “discreetly networked,” “relatively clean” but cacophonous rooms. Voices raised and subdued, “radio chatter, heavy motorized locking doors, and the jingling of keys and restraint chains” are the backdrop that will be sadly familiar to every urban public defender and depressingly unfamiliar to the uninitiated reader.
After arrest, a person is generally taken to a police station, fingerprinted, and detained while police check criminal records. In Los Angeles, arrests for suspected felonies and serious misdemeanors automatically attach a bail money value; there is a bail schedule akin to a menu, set annually by the superior court, that lists how much any given crime is “worth.” Advocates have long decried the system of money bail, arguing, correctly, that it penalizes the poor. After all, why is a rich man charged with possession for sale of cocaine any less dangerous than a poor man charged with the same crime? The rich defendant gets out on bail because they can afford to pay it, while the poor one languishes in jail, at risk of losing their car, job, house, custody, and public benefits, just because they cannot. Goodman’s commentary joins that of legal scholars and commentators like Kelly Lytle-Hernandez in City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 (University of North Carolina Press, 2017), Kristin Henning in The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth (Pantheon Books, 2021), and Emily Bazelon in Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration (Random House, 2019). Bazelon notes that “in the vast majority of cases, bail doesn’t make the public safer and it’s not necessary to make sure people come back to court.” When the court attaches a fee for freedom and makes it so high that few can pay it, countless individuals waste away in jails until their cases are heard. By that time, having spent the intervening days and months tired, afraid, cold, and hungry, many people plead guilty just to get out and go home, regardless of their innocence or the strength of the evidence against them.
Goodman appears to have been a good listener and an astute observer. He decries egregious injustices like President Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs” that led to an arming of police with surplus military equipment and an unequal application of sentencing mandates. He directs us to miscarriages of justice that were only reluctantly righted even in the face of scientific advances that provided incontrovertible proof of innocence. He discusses the casual disregard that judges, prosecutors, and police officers display toward people whose rights have been trampled on and whose liberty is imperiled. Goodman also points to examples of missed opportunities when clients have been unable to avoid jail time: for example, when an untreated mental illness sometimes prevents a person from realizing a good plea offer. Rather than steering them to accept intensive supervision and medical treatment, the client’s cognitive impairment manifests in stubborn disregard of their lawyer’s advice and an insistence on taking the case to trial, which inevitably ends in a guilty verdict and years in prison.
A prevailing popular narrative, advanced in part by the continuous citing of a 2004 article published by the American Bar Association called “Gideon’s Broken Promise: America’s Continuing Quest for Equal Justice” and perpetuated by the media and entertainers such as Chris Rock, insists that public defenders are of lower caliber than privately retained attorneys. Clients themselves are known to ask, “When am I going to get a real attorney?” upon being introduced to their newly appointed public defender. Goodman steadily pushes back against that narrative while simultaneously acknowledging that his was a “unionized job with no profit motive and no performance incentive.” Some public defenders insist that their work is a calling. Others, like Goodman, admit that the crushing expense of law school loans makes it necessary to quickly find employment after graduation; if a boutique white-collar law firm doesn’t want you, the public defender’s office certainly does.
Welcomed enthusiastically by his more-experienced colleagues, Goodman discovered that he relished the job. He found it natural to dedicate himself to the mission of the Cook County Public Defender. He developed a reputation for attention to detail and for hard work. When he made the decision to become a public defender, he did so because he welcomed the opportunity to become a “street-fighter,” to engage in “actual litigation without the corruption of cash incentives” that had accompanied his first legal job in a firm that specialized in “the triumvirate of misery”: bankruptcy, divorce, and torts. His time in the courtroom felt real and important.
As a student intern at the PD’s office, he had realized that “[i]t didn’t take anything but the slightest amount of checking to see that the police were lying about something in an overwhelming number of cases, and yet the prosecutors reflexively and blindly defended them for the sake of their preferred form of order,” which he refers to as the “altar of authoritarianism.”
He calls out the irony that the “essence of sociopathy is lack of empathy for others,” while one of the essential criteria to be a prosecutor or judge is that “you must not have experienced the exact punishment you seek to impose on others.”
Goodman did not retire from the Cook County Public Defender. He burned out: “It takes a special soul to manage the strain and emotions that need to be endured to do the job professionally.” Public defenders “suffe[r] the smoldering wrath” of having been appointed to “shepherd those cases through the process where there is no defense, where the actions of the defendant are legally and morally indefensible, and the outcome is an inevitable, if drawn-out, formality.” Prosecutors, police officers, victim advocacy groups, and victims’ families desire punishment, and many want the person convicted to suffer. Goodman constantly found himself astonished by prosecutors who proffered plea deals only in increments of years despite the fact that anyone who has spent even five minutes in custody knows that every moment is fraught with danger, stress, and an “overwhelming desperation to get out.” There is a brief but unforgettable moment when Goodman recalls waiting to be let out of a jail’s attorney-client meeting room and instead finds himself facing the unlocked entrance to “an entire deck of maximum-security inmates,” due to a deputy’s inattention; in this instance, we feel his terror even as he decries the system’s overreliance on lengthy jail terms as the preferred solution to prevent recidivism.
Nearly 20 years after he last appeared on behalf of a Cook County client, Goodman’s assessments still ring true. Public defenders everywhere continue to bear witness to violence, deception, racism, callousness, and disdain—from prosecutors and police officers, from judges and probation employees, from crime victims, and sometimes even from clients. Some people are “offended by the notion of society providing assistance to those who are accused of harming it,” but Goodman asks us to remember, too, that some people accused of crimes are innocent. And he was prepared “to do [his] absolute best to defend” them. There may be very little that is glamorous about being a public defender, but there is plenty about it to commend.
A former prosecutor and local legislative advisor, Dana Garcetti is currently a law enforcement accountability advisor with the Los Angeles County Office of the Public Defender.
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