The latest effort by Massachusetts public defenders to be recognized as employees of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in order to form a union has again been passed over by the Legislature.
“For years, we’ve heard the community and elected leaders talk about the need to reform the criminal justice system and making outcomes and interactions more equitable for all,” said Thomas McKeever, president of SEIU 888, which is helping Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) attorneys unionize. “Ensuring that the public defender system is adequately structured and funded is an enormous piece in meeting those goals.”
Public defenders are a crucial part of our criminal justice system. In fact, justice cannot be served without them. For defendants who cannot afford representation, public defenders act as legal counsel and advocates. Serving largely marginalized communities and people of color, public defenders are often the only chance these defendants have at a fair trial. Conviction rates are higher and sentences are longer when defendants are not able to present a rigorous defense. While this might masquerade as justice, it undermines the integrity of the entire criminal justice system.
A study the University of Chicago confirmed this. “Experienced attorneys achieve substantially more favorable outcomes for their clients than less experienced attorneys,” the study found. “Defendants represented by more experienced attorneys are more likely to avoid a prison or jail sentence, and those who do receive a sentence serve shorter terms on average.”
Despite the important role they play, The Boston Globe reported this in a 2018 story:
Massachusetts public defenders are among the lowest-paid in the country. Some live with their parents or work second jobs as they attempt to pay off steep law school loans…The Massachusetts Bar Association said public defenders in Massachusetts are paid less than in any other state, ranking just below West Virginia when cost of living is accounted for.
Public defenders have attempted to unionize under a private sector collective bargaining statute, but failed. Why? Because Massachusetts refuses to recognize them as employees. So, they’ve essentially been stuck in organizing limbo. Despite a bill seeking to address this - which has the wide support of rank-and-file legislators – State House leadership refuses to move on the bill.
The bill - filed by CPCS employees with the support of SEIU 888, among others - was simple. It stated that public defenders should be treated like any other executive branch attorney. Yet, something in it scared legislative leaders.
“They want to keep us powerless and begging for money every year,” said Ben Evans, a Fall River public defender told The Boston Globe.
CPCS employees and SEIU 888 plan to continue to fight. Members are encouraged to contact their legislators and urge them to address this issue.