Speech delivered by Rachel Rossi, Director, Office for Access to Justice, U.S. Department of Justice at the Launch of Public Defenders’ Division of Legal Aid Commission, Ghana at Lancaster Hotel, Accra (Wednesday, May 10th, 2023)
Medaase. Thank you for that warm introduction, Mr. Asamoah. I would also like to recognize Attorney General Dame, Legal Aid Commission Acting Director, Ellen Sweetie Sowa, Public Defenders’ Division Acting Director Nelson Kporha, other dignitaries, diplomats, civil society representatives and guests. Thank you all for being here. All diplomatic protocols are observed. I am thrilled, honored, and excited to represent the United States in launching the Public Defender Division of the Ghanian Legal Aid Commission.
While I just arrived in Accra on Monday, I can already feel the warmth and welcoming of the officials and civil society leaders
I have met with. Just yesterday, I was pleased to visit the Legal Aid Commission to meet with Acting Director, Public Defenders’ Division, Kporha, where we discussed opportunities for shared learning, promotion of best practices and improved public defense delivery, and elevating the prestige of the public defense profession in both the U.S. and here in Ghana.
We also visited with other civil society organizations, including the POS Foundation, where we were delighted to meet Jonathan Owusu and his staff. I am also so grateful for the work of my U.S. Department of Justice colleagues who are here with us today, Paul Gill, Bill Houser, and Belinda Birikorang. And a special thank you to U.S. Ambassador Virginia Palmer for her leadership, and to the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Accra. Can we pause to give a round of applause to the dedicated professionals here today, who demonstrate partnership and commitment to the pursuit of access to justice for all.
To all the guests assembled here with us today, I offer greetings from the United States and the Department of Justice. Ghana and the United States maintain an important and enduring friendship, a friendship which I hope we can build upon today and going forward. Our countries also share a strong commitment to democracy and advancing the rule of law.
Attorney General Garland re-established the Office for Access to Justice as a separate office within the Justice Department in 2021, to ensure that we are making the promise of equal justice real for everyone. And I’m honored to serve as Director of the Office.
Our Office is leading a whole of government approach to advancing access to justice. Collectively our work aims to ensure that all communities have access to the promises and protection of our legal systems and government, regardless of income, age, gender, status, identity, ability, or the language they speak. We work to ensure that justice belongs to everyone.
Our office also leads the U.S. government’s effort to implement UN Sustainable Development Goal 16 on promoting peaceful and inclusive societies, ensuring equal access to justice for all, and building transparent institutions.
And our Office has a mandate to support a robust and well-resourced public defense function. In speaking before you today about this mission, and as having served as a former public defender myself, I offer solidarity, humility, and mutual respect, as well as a shared sense of purpose and resolve as we jointly seek to strengthen fairness and dignity of our justice systems. There is much work to be done in both of our countries. Today I will discuss efforts to address access to justice gaps in public defense systems the United States and offer reflections on the progress being undertaken here in Ghana.
In the United States, a common question known to all public defenders – asked at family gatherings, parties, and professional events is: “How can you defend those people?” Some, rightfully so, answer this question by referencing the importance of defending Constitutional principles. Public defenders occupy a vital role in a free and fair society, ensuring due process for all. They guard against encroachment on human and civil rights, expose corruption and misfeasance, and protect against wrongful convictions. Public defenders contribute to strengthened rule of law and a vibrant democracy.
But for me, the importance of the role most frequently centered on the power of public defense to change lives, not only for the criminally accused, but for myself, for other judicial actors and for the broader community as well.
When asked “the question,” my answer has been that I defend “those people” with pride and compassion. As a public defender, my work began with meeting a human being, often in a jail cell, charged with a crime. The task before me was to find out why my client was in jail, charged by the government with a crime, and to evaluate not only the truth of the allegations, but to consider whether constitutional protections had been properly safeguarded.
I approached this inquiry with compassion and empathy. Sometimes this quest would uncover evidence of my client’s innocence or reveal a legal defense to the charge. But often, it would reveal systemic and individual factors that led to my client committing the crime they were accused of. Armed with knowledge about the experiences of each of my clients, I was determined to affirm the dignity and humanity of each person I represented.
That came in many forms-working to divert some away from jail and into community-based treatment, negotiating fair pleas, litigating any alleged constitutional procedural violations or testing the government’s evidence in a public jury trial. Often times, it simply meant standing beside a person who had experienced a lifetime of barriers to accessing basic and core needs like housing, mental healthcare, food security, or employment, and providing their first experience of advocacy and support.
Serving as a public defender was a fundamentally transformative experience. But it did more than expose me to the challenges indigent communities face, it has transformed me into an advocate for a fairer and more just legal system and society. And that is the power of public defense, to transform and empower those who heed its call and undertake its compassionate and empathetic enterprise into change agents – to help ensure that society treats its most vulnerable citizens with compassion and fairness.
And that is why I applaud those of you who have taken on this endeavor in Ghana. You are ensuring that public defense is not simply an initiative or project, but an integral and official component of government and the court system, with dedicated resources. It is the responsibility of all of us, including government leaders, civil society, the courts, the media, and prosecutors alike, to elevate the importance of this role and function. As Attorney General Garland has said, “there are few things more meaningful and more honorable than applying one’s talent, experience, and education to representing another person before the state – no matter what that person is accused of having done.”
And yet, the challenge before us to establish a robust public defense function is great. Although we have a right to counsel in criminal cases, public defenders are overburdened and under-resourced, which can constructively deny access to counsel. Reports demonstrate that thousands of people go to jail each day without ever seeing a lawyer. This demand has persisted as we face high incarceration rates in some jurisdictions and serious recruitment and retention issues in the public defense profession.
The impact disproportionately falls on both communities of color and rural communities, who suffer from higher poverty rates and face significant legal needs. Systemic inequities, including racial and income disparities, also persist across our criminal justice systems. We cannot ignore the vast justice gap experienced too often by our most vulnerable communities and the need for targeted and strategic responses.
What lessons can we share about how we are addressing these challenges?
The first lesson is the importance of using our government and leadership platforms to highlight and visibly support the vital role of public defenders in defending human rights, supporting the rule of law and ensuring the integrity of justice systems.
In March of this year, to spotlight and offer public support to public defenders across the United States, the Department of Justice led a nation-wide listening tour as part of its celebration of the 60th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court decision recognizing the right to counsel in criminal cases.
We met with public defenders, impacted communities and advocates across the United States, from urban cities to rural areas, across different regions including the South, Midwest, and tribal nations. While on the tour, we heard firsthand about the challenges facing public defenders, including limited resources and compensation, high caseloads, and difficulty in recruitment and retention.
At each stop on the tour, we announced new initiatives to offer further support for public defense, including a 100-day comprehensive review to ensure consistent, timely access to counsel in the federal Bureau of Prison pretrial facilities, a new initiative to encourage public defense as a career for law students, and the establishment of a role within our office dedicated to engagement with and support for public defenders.
The highest levels of Justice Department leadership joined this effort. Attorney General Garland, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta and other senior Department of Justice officials amplified these messages in support of public defense.
Concluding the tour with an event at the Justice Department, Attorney General Garland stated, “justice demands more than good prosecutors and good judges. It demands meaningful access to counsel for the accused, including those who cannot afford to hire attorneys. To provide that access, and to reaffirm the kind of faith in law upon which our democracy depends, public defender offices need more resources.” When high level officials use their positions to amplify the importance of access to counsel, it reduces misconception about the role of public defense and increases visibility of the importance of the work-promoting policy changes and expanded resources.
The second lesson is to elevate the voices of public defenders as part of the effort to develop longer term and system wide reforms to make our societies more just and fair, and to create opportunities for information-sharing and collaboration to lift up best practices.
We have found that the pursuit of access to justice requires much more than expanding access to the courthouse or expanding access to lawyers–although these efforts are critical. It also requires us to engage in the transformational work necessary to reform laws and legal systems themselves.
For us, this has meant rooting out systemic inequities and inequality within our legal systems and pursuing evidence-based reform strategies. It also means developing new and innovation solutions. Through their work, public defenders are exposed to fault lines and challenges that weave throughout our broader communities. And they have a critical perspective necessary to help develop these reforms and solutions.
We’re also exploring how our office can serve as a hub and connector of public defense leaders and professionals, to assist with information sharing, promoting innovative practices and illuminating strategies to empower defenders to advocate for more resources. Our Office will continue to consider ways s to pursue this goal through ongoing collaboration and information sharing with our partners, including here in Ghana.
The third lesson is to employ a whole of government, and a people-centered approach to advancing access to justice. We’ve learned that access to justice cannot be accomplished by the courts or the justice system alone. Other sectors of society, including leaders in health, food security, housing and more, hold the expertise required to meet the underlying needs and resource gaps that can contribute to access to justice needs in the criminal legal system. By aligning goals, budgets, and resources, there can be important dividends and impactful holistic results.
One example of this approach in the United States is the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, which is co-chaired by Attorney General Merrick Garland and White House Counsel. It is a collaboration of over 28 federal agencies which our office directs, staffs and runs, and it includes collaboration with the public defense community. In 2021, we looked at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic across court systems, including how it created new complex hurdles for public defenders in accessing their clients, and explored building on lessons learned and innovative responses to expand access in the future. In 2022, we focused on simplifying government through a people-centered lens. The Second Gentleman, Douglas Emhoff, who just recently visited Ghana together with Vice-President Harris, participated in our Principals Convening, where agency officials made commitments to regularly engage with legal service organizations and impacted communities to understand challenges and to inform reform efforts.
We also led a similar government-wide engagement in developing policy solutions to reduce the high rates of return to incarceration in the U.S. The Office for Access to Justice led a collaboration with six other federal agencies to develop a report with recommendations to Congress on mitigating barriers to reentry for individuals who leave incarceration. In conjunction with the issuance of the report, we also worked with people who had been previously incarcerated to host a reentry simulation for officials from across the U.S. government. The report and the simulation aimed to assist government leadership to better understand the complex barriers faced by people who have a criminal conviction, and to put forth tangible strategies to reduce those barriers. We aimed to disrupt the cycle of rearrest, by expanding access to core needs like employment, education, housing, healthcare and food security.
In both examples, we used a people-centered justice approach in our collaboration across government, to ensure our policy solutions reflected the needs of impacted communities themselves. By sharing these lessons with you today, our goal is to not promote a one size fits all approach. Every issue needs its own effective solution. Our goal in sharing is to illuminate lessons and practices. Some of these practices may be applicable here, others may not. We know we don’t have all of the answers, and our approach in the United States will also continue to evolve and grow.
While I have only been in Ghana for a few days, I have learned from my colleagues at the U.S. Embassy of the commendable progress that has been made to support legal aid and reduce overcrowding in Ghana’s prisons. The Legal Aid Commission plays a critical role in protecting low income people accused of crimes across the country. I have met with the Commission staff and heard about how the Commission’s capacity is increasing through its partnership with the Department of Justice.
In 2021, the Commission represented 42% more accused persons in criminal cases than in 2020. In 2022, it represented 47% more accused persons than 2021. The Commission’s five-year strategics plan is commendable. The Plea-Bargaining Law enacted last July could also serve to expedite the resolution of the many cases which could be resolved outside of the formal court system. Ghana’s efforts to improve the criminal justice system are inspirational.
In closing, I want to underscore how grateful I am to all you for affording me this opportunity. As I reflect on a great U.S. leader, Martin Luther King, and his visit to Ghana for its independence ceremony in 1957, I am reminded that our countries share similar historical injustices. Dr. King identified with Ghana’s independence struggle, and recognized a strong link between ending colonialism in Africa and the fight against racism in the United States.
Upon returning from Ghana, King delivered a sermon entitled “The Birth of A New Nation,” where he stated:
The road to freedom is difficult, but finally, Ghana tells us that the forces of the universe are on the side of justice. That’s what it tells us, now. You can interpret Ghana any kind of way you want to, but Ghana tells me that the forces of the universe are on the side of justice.
My visit here has reminded me that the forces of the universe are, indeed, on the side of justice. The histories of Ghana and the United States are intertwined and linked, and our work together to strengthen the rule of law and our democracies will continue the legacy of great Ghanian and American leaders. Thank you, and I look forward to continuing to support further progress.