One of the joys of public defense is the daily opportunity to represent society’s voiceless, to force the world to hear those whose voices have been muted by their socioeconomic status.
This representation is even more critical now than in the recent past given the rapid accumulation of wealth by our country’s highest socioeconomic echelon. This wealth concentration has widened the economic gap between the rich and poor to an alarming degree.
I didn’t fully appreciate the expanding inequality between the fortunate and the indigent until recently, while reading James M. Stone’s book, “5 Easy Theses.” Stone suggests several solutions to our country’s most glaring economic problems. One of these problems in particular, the expanding inequality between rich and poor, piqued my interest as a public defender.
Stone provides startling statistics on just how wide the inequality gap in America has become. For example, in the mid-20th century, the top 10 percent of American households earned roughly one-third of all American income. Today that number has ballooned to one-half. This means that, just 60 years ago, 90 percent of American households shared two-thirds of all American income; now they only share half.
Stone argues that because 90 percent of Americans must now share far less of America’s total income, more middle-class Americans have become poor, resulting in more low-income families. And, as their incomes decrease, more people become eligible for public defender services.
Stone also presents several studies that show how America’s widening inequality in wealth stunts social mobility. Because of this, our client base, even through hard work, grit, and determination, faces insurmountable obstacles to improve their socioeconomic status. This trend, Stone argues, undermines the democratic pluralism and social stability that permits our democracy to thrive.
The increased number of poor Americans creates more cases for public defenders who already carry burdensome caseloads. More cases spread among the same number of attorneys further impedes their access to justice. This inequality is intolerable in a country whose highest court’s entrance is adorned with the motto: “Equal Justice Under Law.”
But it’s this lofty, ambitious goal that motivates public defenders on a daily basis. When we seek to achieve “equal justice under law” for our clients, we provide them due process and a rare chance at equality.
There’s nothing more rewarding than working alongside other public defenders who demand the criminal justice system deal with the poor and more fortunate equally. This effort reinforces our country’s foundation, a foundation that is already buckling under the weight of inequality. Helping our clients achieve equality, something they rarely get a chance to experience, is crucial to the future of our delicate democracy.
Paul Meabon was admitted to the New York State Bar in January 2015 and has been an Assistant Monroe County Public Defender since May 2015. Paul graduated from SUNY Buffalo Law School in May 2014 and earned a history degree from Roberts Wesleyan College in 2006. He is currently assigned to the Town Court Bureau where he handles misdemeanors from arraignment to sentencing and some felony preliminary hearings. Paul served in the United States Navy from 2006-2011.