ABA report sees role for lawyers in repairing public trust

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A report from the American Bar Association is calling upon attorneys to help their communities repair the mistrust that divides law enforcement and residents of the communities they serve.

Released in January, the report, “American Bar Association Task Force on Building Public Trust in the American Justice System,” examines the problems and offers ways to find solutions. ABA President Linda Klein, speaking to the Indiana Lawyer, emphasized what works in one community may not work as well in another.

“One size fits one,” she said.

Klein described attorneys as “guardians of the criminal justice system” and said their abilities and skills can help restore confidence in the public safety officials and the courts. In particular, bar associations can take the lead in bringing together prosecutors and defense attorneys as well as police chiefs and community leaders. The lawyers can direct the discussion and help people listen to each other.

“That’s going to go a long way in finding best practices for the community,” Klein said.

Also, the lawyers can help educate the public about civics and how the criminal justice system works. Klein said promoting the rule of law and access to justice is important for lawyers to do because confidence in the criminal justice system is eroding.  

“We are safer when the system is believed to be fair,” she said.

Ann Sutton, chief counsel for the Marion County Public Defender Agency and chair of the Indiana State Bar Association criminal justice section, applauded the ABA report.

“It seems right in line with our philosophy,” she said.

Public service agencies and law enforcement already gather Thursday afternoons in Indianapolis to discuss the jail overcrowding and ways to reduce it in Marion County. Sutton sees a lot of cooperation and collaboration between the representatives from the various organizations including the courts, prosecutor’s office, public defender agency, sheriff and police.

With changes in Indiana’s criminal code keeping low-level offenders in the county jails rather than sending them to the state Department of Correction, the group is limited in ways to cut the inmate population. Even so, people are still willing to meet and talk which, Sutton said, is a smart way to address overcrowding.

The ABA task force was formed in 2016 by former association president Paulette Brown and then incoming president Klein after three straight days of police-involved shootings. On July 5, Alton Sterling was shot by law enforcement in Baton Rouge. On July 6, Philando Castile was killed during a traffic stop by Minneapolis police. Finally, on July 7, five Dallas police officers were killed by a lone gunman in retaliation.

In explaining its position, the task force’s report states that lawyers are “especially suited” to help build consensus about where reform is most needed and how to implement it. Lawyers know how to find, weigh and present evidence as well as evaluate policies and practices. They can also mediate disputes by getting opposing sides to consider other views and find common ground.

Klein believes the most important way to bring about change is through dialogue. Attorneys can help in bringing community leaders and residents together to talk and listen to each other.

The ABA is now shifting its focus. With the report finished, it is convening an implementation group who will assemble a tool kit for attorneys to use in their communities.


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