New York’s public defender community is gaining popularity on Twitter by telling stories from their perspective on the criminal justice system, especially when highlighting flaws and injustices. However, there is vocal criticism whether they are crossing a line in telling stories that belong to their clients.
Public defenders have been blogging for the last decade or so, but it is only recently that they have been gaining much of a following. This is in part because of the ease and immediacy of Twitter. Whereas high-paid private attorneys have attempted to manipulate public opinion with slick media strategies, Twitter provides for a democratization of media that allows even public defenders, who are notoriously overworked and short on time, to capitalize on free moments throughout the day to tweet.
These tweets can have a definite benefit to criminal justice reform movements. For a long time, the narratives around criminal justice have been the exclusive purview of prosecutors and law enforcement (think of the police-oriented shows like COPS and Law & Order).
“Twitter has allowed public defenders to start to present the criminal justice system from the defendant’s perspective,” stated Jody David Armour, a professor of law at the University of Southern California and author of the book N*gga Theory: Race, Language, Unequal Justice, and the Law.
These tweets can shed light on flaws in the system, but they also serve to shift the moral framework of othering those accused of crimes to one that portrays their common humanity.
These efforts have helped sway public sentiment and, in concert with activists, have successfully pursued bail reform and discovery reform.
But this newfound popularity has also drawn the attention of critics who say that public defenders should not be the ones telling these stories.
Before sharing details of a case that could identify a client, an attorney is supposed to obtain consent from that client. But what does true consent look like in the dynamic between public defenders and their clients?
“Because here’s the person, your counsel, your attorney, who holds your life in his or her hands, literally, and who you, therefore, don’t want to displease,” said Armour.
This leads many public defenders, who don’t have time in between arraignments to discuss the risks and benefits of media coverage with their clients, to tweet case summaries in a way that attempts to anonymize them. But a look at court records online can lead a person to easily de-anonymize this data. It would be even easier for prosecutors or judges to do so, and defendants can face retribution as these officials react negatively to criticism.
Since the vast majority of defendants do not have access to Twitter while in custody, many of them would never know if their public defender’s tweets caused more trouble than they are worth. And while, collectively, the tweets have helped push for reforms, a public defender’s sole duty is to benefit their individual clients, many of whom simply wish to move beyond their experience with the system.
On the darker side, these stories can stray into white saviorism and potentially “Black pain porn.” Public defenders are more diverse than prosecutors and judges, but they are still overwhelmingly white and male.
“What I think you see now is more about people building a personal brand or sharing stories as a way to sort of shock people without there being much of a next step afterward,” said Rachel Foran, a prison abolitionist organizer.
So much of this debate then centers on how and why these stories are being told, according to Brendon Woods, a public defender serving Oakland, California, since the 1990s. He said, “Our clients, they’ve been dehumanized by the system so much, you don’t need to have it happen from people who are tweeting or posting stories on Facebook and without any thought or strategy being put into them or why they’re doing it.”
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