Local advocates work for equal justice in criminal court system

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Jee Park, the Executive Director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, says American institutions that are responsible for upholding justice are being overburdened; contributing to mass incarceration across the state.

“The rate and number of wrongful convictions is reflective in the number of Black men serving life sentences in Louisiana” Park said.

“In the past 19 years- we were founded in 2001- we have freed or exonerated 36 indivduals who have served collectively more than 873 years in prison” Park added.

On of those people was Baton Rouge’s own Archie Williams. He was sentenced to life in prison and served 36 years before being exonerated through DNA evidence.

“We see that most of our clients received really cursory processes through the system” Park said. “Because the public defender system is so underfunded and because all of our clients are poor… we see in the trial files, the lack of resources that were available to defense counsel to effectively put on a defense.”

It’s something Marshall Thomas sees everyday.

“It’s an intense experience to walk into the jail and talk to your fellow Black man who’s the same age as you, the same skin color as you and you can really think, ‘but for the grace of God go I” said Thomas.

As a public defender in East Baton Rouge, Thomas represents clients who typically can’t afford their own defense.

“It’s important for me to be an attorney that can speak to some of our clients on the same level as them and try to understand who they are as people” said Thomas.

Like public defenders across the country, Thomas says on top of disparities in Louisiana’s criminal justice system, his office is often representing a disproportionate number of cases with little to no equal funding.

“If more people understood what was going on, more people would care about it” said public defender Sarah Ashley Messina.

Messina has worked in the public defender’s office since 2015; first as a law clerk, then an investigator, now as an attorney.

“Our funding comes mostly off the backs of our clients- who are innocent until proven guilty- haven’t been convicted of a crime… they’re the one’s that mostly fund this office.

While not accounting for the totality of their individual budget, Messina says the East Baton Rouge City Parish’s operating budget, illustrates the disparity when it comes to funding public defense, versus criminal prosecution.

This year, local government allocated $250,000 to the public defender’s office compared to $7 million allocated for the East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s Office.

“There is no justice. There is a legal process, but in terms of equitable justice, I haven’t seen it played out in mass especially not in this city” said bail disruptor Ashley White.

White works with the Bail Project; a national organization working to address mass incarceration through the lens of the cash bail system.

“If you’re held on bail before a trial, you’re not able to consult with your attorneys, you’re not able to be in your community with people who support you. If you have other mental health or substance abuse issues, you’re not getting the proper treatment, if you need medical attention, you’re not getting adequate medical care… and so you’re totally disrupting someone’s life pre-trial, before they’ve ever been convicted of anything” White said.

“This system needs to be disrupted because it will continue to perpetuate more inequalities if we don’t stop it” she added.

Wile many of the issues this new generation of young advocates are tackling run generations deep, they say the action people take now, will ensure generations to come are more fair and free.

“When we have a city and a parish like that where people are healthy and people are thriving, then the jail, the prisons, the other systems- we’re not going to need those systems anymore and that’s the hope I think” Thomas said.

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