Questions about Ketanji Brown Jackson's role as a court-appointed lawyer from 2005 to 2007 have renewed a national debate over public defenders, Reuters reports. Republican senators accused Jackson of letting violent criminals and pedophiles back onto the streets as part of her role. April Frazier Camara, president and CEO of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, said Jackson's confirmation hearing illustrates a misunderstanding of the position, and fundamental rights of the accused. "Defense lawyers perform a service, and our system is exemplary throughout the world precisely because we ensure that people who are accused of crimes are treated fairly,” she says.
Many public defenders say their role is under attack. Last July, 50 criminal justice and defense organizations wrote Congress complaining that public defenders are not being fairly considered for judgeship positions compared to prosecutors or corporate lawyers. Public defenders in Oregon, Virginia, Jacksonville, Fl., and New York City point to a pay gap between defenders and prosecutors. The National Legal Aid and Defender Association urged Congress to pass a bill aimed at creating pay parity between state and local defenders and prosecutors. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University reported that spending more tax dollars on court-appointed lawyers is unpopular, and an uptick in "tough-on-crime" attitudes from politicians and constituents poses a challenge to these efforts amid rising crime rates in major cities. “One theory is people become punitive because they're afraid of being victimized and believe harsh punishment equals protection, but the research – ours and others’ – doesn’t bear that out,” said Michael O'Hear, a law professor at Marquette University Law School.