Justice impaired, justice denied

by Peggy Hinds

 Early in my tenure as the interim ED, I was asked by the Kentucky Bar Association to serve on a task force considering fair compensation for public defenders and prosecutors. I agreed, not knowing exactly what it had to do with the mission of KCC. At the first task force meeting, I felt totally out of place in a room full of lawyers and judges, and again questioned my participation.

 How is the compensation of prosecutors and public defenders and their staff relative to the mission of the Kentucky Council of Churches? I soon discovered the answer to this question.

 Prosecutors and public defenders implement our constitutional principles. They are essential in, and primarily responsible for, the operation and fair administration of our system of justice. Liberty and public safety hang in the balance.

 Justice is the first virtue of society,[1] and an essential tenet of civil and religious traditions.[2] The timely administration of true justice is due every person, without regard to status or economic condition.[3] Society has particular responsibility for people who do not have the means to provide a just defense for themselves.

Pope Francis stated that "Human rights are not only violated by terrorism, repression or assassination, but also by unfair economic structures that creates huge inequalities."[4]

 When there is a high rate of turnover among prosecutors and public defenders, cases are delayed and then, too often, handled by inexperienced replacements without the knowledge, understanding and training of those they replaced. The inevitable consequence of high turnover and inexperience is a lack of justice for those who rely upon public defense, as well as those who are victims of crime. We can call ourselves a just society only when we provide equal justice for all.  

 In its policy statement “Call to Justice,” the Council defines justice from a biblical perspective.

“In Scripture “justice” is not synonymous with “punishment.” When God speaks of “justice,” more is implied than persons “getting what they have coming to them.” God’s justice requires that all persons have equal access to God’s gifts and that no partiality or preference of any kind be given to any person or groups of persons. There is always also the element of grace and mercy behind the “justice” that God brings. It assures not just what is deserved, but more than what is deserved; and mercy is always offered to all equally. “Injustice” is always seen as taking more than one’s “fair” (equal) share at the expense of someone else.”[5]

 People who can afford a private attorney have an unfair advantage over defendants who have to rely on public defenders. It is not that public defenders are less qualified or that they care less about their clients. They are underpaid and overburdened with cases. The state loses the most qualified and experienced defenders because they are drawn to higher paying private practices or to other states that pay their public defenders and prosecutors significantly more than the Commonwealth. Overall, Kentucky public defenders make about 23% less on average than an attorney doing the same job in one of the surrounding states. 

 Currently, the respective staffs of the Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Public Advocacy have their salaries inappropriately suppressed because the state bases the salary of these employees on a 37.5 hour work week. The important work of the employees of these agencies should not be limited to 37.5 hours per week. The salaries should be based on a regular 40-hour work week, just as is the case for many other state agencies.   Salaries for all prosecution and defender staff should be increased 6.67% to accommodate this increase in service to the Commonwealth.

 Retention of public defenders and prosecutors will ensure that the accused and victims of crime have the experience and knowledge essential to a proper and timely trial. It will also save the state and tax payers money because replacing attorneys and training new staff cost more than appropriate compensation.

 To ensure public safety, benefit taxpayers and reduce the cost of the criminal justice system, the KBA Task Force is asking for a 23% increase in the salaries of prosecutors and public defenders, along with other measures that will put Kentucky in line with the average of the surrounding states. As Christians, who have a heart for justice and equality for all people, we can be supportive of the Task Force’s request because it will make a significant difference for victims and accused.


[1] Rawls, John, 1971, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, p. 3. See also, Slote, Michael, "Justice as a Virtue", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2014/entries/justice-virtue/>.

[2] "Our Rabbis taught: ...The sword comes into the world, because of justice delayed and justice denied...“ Pirkei Avot 5:7, section Mishnah (1st century BCE – 2nd century CE);  “…he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily.” Luke 18:8; Zechariah 7:9. "This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.'" Psalm 82:3. "Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed." Exodus 23:6. "Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits."

[3] "To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice,“ Magna Carta (1215) Cl.40 ; "Our Law says well, 'To delay justice, is injustice.'" William Penn, Fruits of Solitude 69 (11th ed. 1906)(1693)“; "Justice too long delayed is justice denied“ -Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

[4] Rice-Oxley, Mark, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/13/jorge-mario-bergoglio-pope-poverty.

[5] KENTUCKY COUNCIL OF CHURCHES, Policy Statement: A Call For Justice, Commission on Justice Ministries, Adopted by the 44th Annual Assembly, October 11-12, 1991.