On November 14, The Neighborhood Defender Service (NDS) and Wayne County Executive Warren C. Evans opened its doors for an Open House in the Guardian Building in downtown Detroit. The County signed a contract with NDS in June following approval by the County Commission. Under Evans’ leadership, Wayne County commissioned the Sixth Amendment Center in 2017 to examine Wayne County’s public defender office. The report, funded by a state grant, concluded that chronically stagnant state funding and increased caseloads were leading to deficiencies in legal services that could jeopardize the right to counsel. With additional state resources available via a $17 million Michigan Indigent Defense Commission grant, Wayne County issued a request for proposals in September of 2018 for operation of the public defender office.
The office is run by Managing Director Chantá Parker. A public defender, criminal justice strategist, and leader, Parker has more than 10 years of criminal defense experience. She worked as a supervising attorney in the Criminal Defense Practice of the Legal Aid Society’s Brooklyn office, and as a felony trial attorney with the Orleans Public Defenders.
Unlike in traditional public defense practices, 25 percent of Wayne County Circuit Court cases are shouldered by NDS, providing residents with an entire team fighting on their behalf, including criminal attorneys, client advocates, social workers and investigators.
NDS was founded in Harlem in 1990, pioneering a holistic model that addressesproblems that plague public defense in many cities across the country.
Last year, Parker completed an 18-month assignment at the Innocence Project as the Special Counsel for New Initiatives. In this role, she directed the development of new strategies to address the growing crisis in indigent defense, racial bias in the criminal justice system and misdemeanor guilty pleas. Earlier this year, she joined the Michigan State Planning Body, an unincorporated association of individuals from the legal services community, who are tasked with coordinating the state’s efforts to deliver civil and criminal legal services to low-income individuals.
Recently The Michigan Chronicle had an opportunity to sit down with Ms. Parker to discuss her vision for NDS and why she believes it is so important for Detroit and Wayne County.
MC: Why is Neighborhood Defender Service important for Detroit?
CP:I think it’s important for Detroit because this community has not had high quality representation on a consistent basis. The 6thAmendment Center report really speaks for itself in terms of what kind of representation folks who couldn’t afford an attorney got here in Wayne County.
MC: Talk more about the 6thAmendment Center.
CP: The 6thAmendment Center is a national policy shop that goes around the country and looks at defender services and the provision of representation for folks who cannot afford an attorney. They are the standard bearer of what should be done. They came to Wayne County a couple of years ago to assess whether the public defender’s office was providing that. What they found was that the people were not getting the quality of representation that they needed. You’ve seen, out of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, people who are wrongfully convicted. People wind up losing 15, 40 years of their lives because they didn’t have an attorney who would go and investigate, talk to witnesses, put those witnesses on the stand.
MC: What does the 6thAmendment say specifically?
CP:The 6thAmendment says you have the right to an attorney if you can’t afford one. And that you have the right to a public trial, a fair trial, an impartial jury.
MC: Detroit is the blackest big city in America. Talk more about how race factors into this.
CP:That is really important to me as a black woman. That’s why I do this work is because I want my people to be free. I know what it means for someone to be away from their families, especially for something they didn’t do.
What we know is that in our criminal justice system, more often than not, it’s black and brown folks who are incarcerated, and who are arrested. There are disparities along every step of the way from arrest all the way to conviction. That makes a difference if this is the blackest city in the United States because that means you probably have a higher proportion of people who are in the system who are black, who are suffering because they don’t have that representation.
It was a no-brainer for me to want to take a part in this opportunity given that dynamic.
MC: On a personal level what attracted you to this work?
CP:I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. My aunt’s a lawyer, and I really looked up to her. She was a professional woman, and she got to travel the world as a lawyer. That was the first spark for me. But then as I got into law school and thought about what kind of law I wanted to practice, I knew that I wanted to help my community in some way. I was an African American History major in college. I had a real intimate understanding of the history of what’s happening to black people in this country. I was thoughtful about where in this current moment are black people catching the most hell? It was in criminal law.
MC: A new Criminal Justice Center is currently under construction in Wayne County. Do you view NDS as a necessary compliment to the criminal justice system, helping more poor black and brown people to avoid prison?
CP:What I’ll say is that anytime system stakeholders are taking a closer look at who’s incarcerated, how long they’re incarcerated, why they’re incarcerated, and trying to do something about it, that’s good. In the public defender world, this is one of the hottest things happening right now. To have a county government and state government really recognize the importance of indigent defense and the importance of a well-resourced office, and the way in which Wayne County and the State came together to do this process, it’s really unprecedented.