“Talk is cheap until you hire a lawyer.”
—Attributed to PT Barnum, founder of Barnum & Bailey Circus and promoter of celebrated hoaxes and human curiosities.
Let’s begin by assuming that most of us are upstanding citizens, and have no premeditated notions of breaking the law. Alas, even the best of us can run afoul of the authorities, and frankly don’t have either the resources or clout to have a Johnnie Cochran on speed dial. In this case we the indentured and indigent must turn to the Public Defender’s Office.
For the cash strapped
“Justice should be free; but it is not.”
— Clara Shortridge Foltz, the first female lawyer on the West Coast and pioneer of legal representation of the financially impoverished.
In some circles, public defenders are dismissed as second-rate lawyers unable to get hired by high- powered law firms. In reality, many are highly competent individuals who have chosen the legal profession as an avenue to benefit society, and perhaps counter the general perception of attorneys as opportunistic parasites. Here in Los Angeles County, the more than 700 members of the Public Defenders Office are abetted by a legion of investigators, paralegals, secretaries, and social workers. Defendants unwilling to wait to be assigned one of them may access their website at https://pubdef.lacounty.gov/.
Human kindness (and a tax write off)
In the legal trade there is a quaint term known as “pro bono,” —short for the Latin phrase ‘pro bono publico,’ which means “for the public good.” Briefly stated, it is a process wherein legal professionals make available their services to those who are otherwise unable to afford them.
As with anything, attorneys who engage in these scenarios come from various backgrounds. Generally no payment is involved, but pro bono work attracts newly minted attorneys who have passed the state bar (the licensing agency which oversees the 250,000 plus lawyers who can legally practice within the state of California) and need to gain experience.
More often, this work is undertaken by successful attorneys as a method to secure tax write-offs to offset the government’s siphoning of their annual fees.
To engage such legitimate professionals, access the online website Justia at https://www.justia.com/ lawyers/california/los-angeles/legal-aid-and-pro-bono-services.
“That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we Black are wise:
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes”
Presently, we are in the midst of a social reconsideration of the realities about the concepts of freedom and equality upon which our country was founded. Among these is the ongoing conversation about the necessity of revamping the legal system, and the folly of what has been dubbed the Prison Industrial System.
With the transition of the millennials, considerable attention has been generated over the success of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization conceived in the wake of the controversy around the O. J. Simpson murder trial of 1995. Since then, more than 300 convictions, many of them homicides, have been exonerated through the newly emerged technology of DNA testing.
In this state, the San Diego based California Innocence Project is notable for securing the release of football star Brian Banks, who was wrongly accused of raping a classmate at Long Beach Polytechnic High in 2002. It accepts cases for review of convictions in Southern California from Kern County on down to San Diego, and may be accessed at https://californiainnocenceproject.org/.
Some 28.5 percent of the 120,000 plus inmates in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation are Black (along with another 44 percent who are Hispanic). Among the organizations committed to address this racial imbalance is the Prison Law Office in Berkeley (https://prisonlaw.com/), a consortium of lawyers and support staff dedicated to reversing the inhumane, unfair, and unlawful treatment within the state prison system.
As the most populated county in the most populous (and possibly most litigious) state in the union, Los Angeles is blessed (or cursed) with a myriad legal concerns and entities dedicated to the grassroots population.
The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (https://lafla.org/) has several outlets throughout the county, including the South Los Angeles office at 7000 S. Broadway. In keeping with its mission statement to “…achieve equal justice for people living in poverty across Greater Los Angeles,” its dedicated team of attorneys and paralegals provide counseling, direct representation, and referrals for the financially impoverished. In addition, they offer workshops and seminars to educate the public about their legal rights.
The Learning Rights Law Center (https://www.learningrights.org/) at 1625 W. Olympic Blvd. specializes in litigation involving educational rights for minors.
For those north of Los Angeles, the Central California Legal Services (https://www.centralcallegal.org/) provides legal services for the disadvantaged in Central California.
Another valuable resource is the American Civil Liberties Union (https://www.aclu.org/). Located at 1313 W 8th St., Suite #200. It has a vast list of legal entities catering to niche groups traditionally marginalized by the justice system.
In a perfect world, we would waltz through life without involvement in the criminal justice system, and in the event we were so unfortunate, we would enter the hostile environs of America’s courtrooms in the company of legal heavyweights, à la the Simpson “Dream Team” of the 1990s. However, the 99 percent of us not so financially endowed can take solace in the knowledge that mechanisms are in place to ease the repercussions when sentencing is handed down.