Article 25

A Prosecutor and a Lawyer Walked into a Church

In Uncategorized on 11/29/2015 at 2:08 pm

Prosecutor and public defenderBeyond Civility gets people talking

By Jeremy Flannery

Dialogue can lead citizens and civic leaders to develop more awareness and understanding about how society functions and the motives of its active members. That is the rationale behind Beyond Civility: Communication for Effective Governance, a local organization that seeks to break down partisan barriers and provide an antidote to negative language in public discourse.

Beyond Civility hosts communication workshops with local businesses, media and public officials and organizes two forms of face-to-face discussions between civic leaders. One is a “back-to-back” discussion with two people of opposing views challenged to taking the opposition’s viewpoint and express it until the other side says, “I could not have said it better myself.” The second form of dialogue is a “side-by-side” event with two people of opposing views discussing their motives and the backgrounds that led them to take their positions.

Beyond Civility has hosted more than 15 face-to-face events since 2012, involving city council members, state representatives, local political party leaders, lawyers from prosecutors’ and public defenders’ offices and representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

Prosecutor once arrested

The organization’s most recent “side-by-side” event Sept. 21 at Saint John’s Unitarian Universalist Church featured Assistant U.S. District Attorney Kenneth Parker and Hamilton County Public Defender Raymond Faller.

The similarities in the family histories of this prosecutor and this criminal defense attorney, and in the personal experiences that led them to take their positions, might be surprising. Parker, the prosecutor, is African American. Faller, the public defender, is Caucasian. Both men were raised Catholic by their parents in Cincinnati. Parker served as an altar boy for his parish. Neither came from affluent families.

Parker said he once worked for an employer who used the “honor system” for recording his work hours. That test of being honest with his employer helped him develop moral character, he said.

Parker said he used to read Time Magazine publications about characters in the Wild West working to establish a justice system far away from the reaches of metropolitan justice during the expansion era of the United States.

“There were no race issues,” Parker said. “You were just cowboys.”

Parker said he was once arrested for grabbing a police officer’s shirt sleeve while being cited for jaywalking. After the officer signed the ticket and handed it to Parker, Parker grabbed the officer’s sleeve and demanded that he provide his badge number. The officer’s partner then tackled Parker and arrested him for assaulting a police officer. Afterward, Parker says, when he was in the rear of the squad car, one of the officers said, “You know what, boy? We’ll take you down to the docks and straighten you out real good.”

Parker said that incident reminds him that police officers must be thoroughly questioned by prosecutors, because their account of an event might not be supported by other witnesses.

“It’s not about winning or losing,” Parker said. “If a prosecutor is saying, ‘I have so many wins,’ that’s not a good prosecutor.”

Prosecutors must be sure that the proper suspects are charged with a crime, he said. Otherwise, the wrongfully charged might lose hope and confess to crimes they did not commit.

Too many suspects are in jail because they can’t afford bail, according to Parker.

“Some people should go home,” he said. “The criminal justice system can make or break a person who might be innocent.”

While quoting the cliché – “If you do the crime, you do the time” – Parker said legislators should restore discretionary powers to judges instead of establishing mandatory minimum sentences. He also said the corrections system convicts should focus more on education and rehabilitation.

“What do we want the justice system to look like when they get out?” Parker said. “Do we want them to be body builders, or do we want them to be thinkers?”

‘No trust fund’

Faller discussed his family background and experiences at Roger Bacon High School to explain how he found his way toward becoming a criminal-defense attorney. His family’s finances from low-wage employment and the curriculum and discipline at his high school shared the common notion that “failure was not an option,” Faller said.

“There was no room for failure,” he said. “There was no safety net. There was no trust fund.”

Faller recalled an English composition test that was a pop quiz. Students had 40 minutes to complete an essay on a topic assigned by the teacher.

“You got an ‘F’ if you had one run-on sentence in that essay,” Faller said.

Impoverished clients are common for a public defender’s office. Faller said he first became aware of serious poverty while working at a local grocery store before becoming a public defender. He said that about 90 percent of the store’s customers bought groceries with food stamps.

“I can’t say I knew really poor people until I graduated high school,” Faller said.

Inadequate funding is the biggest problem for defense attorneys, according to Faller. People facing prosecution often cannot afford their own defense, and so public defenders handle the bulk of criminal defense in the United States, he said.

But the problem is not that public officials don’t have an interest in adequately funding the justice system, but rather that political candidates fear they will lose elections for supporting more funding, Parker said.

“No one gets elected into office by saying, ‘I want to raise taxes to pay lawyers, but not just that. … I want them to be paid to defend guilty people,'” Faller said.

Faller disagreed with Parker’s stance, the classical theory of criminology in which choice is the primary focus. Faller said another approach is to consider influences and circumstances beyond a person’s control that can cause them to commit crimes.

“They didn’t have the benefit I had, so I can’t be as judgmental about them doing what they do,” Faller said.

But Faller said that kind of empathy does not excuse a person from committing a crime.

Parker expressed the need to have empathy for all people, including criminals. However, he said, “I’ve never sent a man to jail. They sent themselves away.”

Beyond Civility hosts its next forum, a discussion about the health-care system, Oct. 21 at St. John’s Unitarian Universalist Church in Clifton. For more information, visit beyondcivility.org.

 

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