Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"With Liberty and Justice for All"


It is with these words that the Pledge of Allegiance concludes: "With liberty and justice for all." But is that the way it is in America? More specifically, is that the way it is in Michigan?

Yesterday afternoon, I moderated a conversation about Michigan's failed public defense system. This was sponsored by the Michigan Campaign for Justice, and was entitled: "Faith and Justice: The Need for Community Public Defense."

The forum consisted of a presentation by Ann Mathews, a criminal defense attorney with the Bronx Defenders, a New York City based agency, who explained their system, which is intriguing. We heard from Stephanie Chang, the Deputy Director of the Campaign, and then I moderated a conversation that included four other panelists, all representing religious traditions. Besides me we had a Protestant, a Catholic, a Jew, and a Muslim (so the Abrahamic religions were represented). Each of the panelists noted that their traditions lift up both the cause of justice and concern for the poor and indigent. Both the biblical text and the Koran make this clear.

I must say, that I was appalled at what I heard about the Michigan system, which is a patchwork of 83 county run and funded systems. There are no state standards, no requirements, no parity. The Constitution of the United States states that "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the assistance of counsel for his defense" (Amendment 6). While the Michigan system may barely squeeze under the minimum required (and that is questionable), it is clearly not equal justice.

Now, to have a system that is funded, supervised, regulated, and designed to represent the accused fairly might cost money, but surely the current system is inefficient and dangerous. Consider that if someone is wrongly convicted, that means the perpetrator remains free.

From my perspective as a person of faith, as a religious leader, and a follower of Jesus, I am reminded first of all of what the Prophet Micah had to say:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

And as we were reminded yesterday, the King James renders the words "love kindness" as "love mercy." I think that this is an appropriate rendering.

I am also reminded that Jesus was put on a cross by the state, and that he did not have proper counsel.

And I am also reminded that In Matthew 25, Jesus speaks of judgment -- our judgment -- and in that pronouncement, Jesus asks whether we visited him in prison and noted that we had done so, when we attended to the needs of the "least of these."

I appreciate the work being done here in Michigan to raise the consciousness of the people. May we encourage our leaders to do the right thing -- so that there might be "justice for all."

And, let me add that this is a bi-partisan effort, that includes support from the Unitarian Universalists to the evangelical Prison Fellowship, from the Council of Islamic Organizations of Michigan to Citizens for Traditional Values." And as I said, most Michiganders claim to be people of faith, surely we can't let this system remain unchanged.

7 comments:

Steph said...

Rev. Cornwall: Thanks for your wonderful job moderating yesterday and for this terrific blog post. Let's get people of faith informed and mobilized! Thanks, Stephanie

Laura said...

Fantastic post Rev. Cornwall: We hope you and others at the forum will be leading the fight for fairness and justice!

Thanks, Laura

Anonymous said...

Michigan's public defense system has always been “penny wise”.
This doesn’t only cause injustice, it wastes money big time when we feed, clothe, “store” and then sometimes compensate the innocent- if they eventually prove the case is false after the fact. Arrogant and/ or corrupt prosecutors and police are a main problem as they can convince an overworked public defense attorney they have no chance. Juries also need to be more engaged in discerning truth from fiction. I’ve seen these things in action. At the best, sometimes they think their “hunches” are correst and thus have the right to lie to buster their case. David Mc

Anonymous said...

Did you see the story about the Oakland County prosecutor dropping charges of pistol whipping a student by a coach because the student lost his car keys?... on school grounds? Guns are not allowed at school at any rate.

They didn't think the victim was "sympathetic enough (white enough maybe? I shouldn't go there, I don't know his race) because he had some prior run ins with the law? This goes both ways. The Ferndale police are outraged. I applude them for their outrage. David Mc

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

In the original draft, the Pledge read "with liberty, EQUALITY, and justice for all." Equality was erased so that the pledge would be more acceptable in the segregated South--which certainly undermines commitment to justice for all, no?

Anonymous said...

"with liberty, EQUALITY, and justice for all."
Interesting. That's a new one for me., David Mc

Anonymous said...

Thanks Michael, you're correct-

http://oldtimeislands.org/pledge/pledge.htm David Mc