On January 30, the Public Interest Law Center’s Leaders in Public Interest Series hosted a panel discussion in which experts tackled the question “Is Social Justice Best Promoted by Being a Prosecutor or Public Defender?”

Robin Steinberg ’82, founder and executive director of the nonprofit public defender service the Bronx Defenders, gave an unequivocal answer: “Public defenders are the players in the criminal justice system that forward the goals of social justice, and I would argue to you that they are the only players in the criminal justice system that do so. At the heart of being a public defender is the belief that every human being is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect, no matter what they are charged with, and that every human being is entitled to be defined by their humanity and not by their own worst act.”

Daniel Alonso ’90, the chief assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, had a different take, arguing that both public defenders and prosecutors serve the public interest. Alonso pointed out that prosecutors often decide not to prosecute as a means of attaining justice. He quoted a district attorney who had said, “A busy Brooklyn prosecutor exonerates more people in a month than the best criminal defense lawyer in their entire career.” Alonso added, “I’m just as proud of the cases I decided not to bring or dismissed as I am of the ones in which I won convictions.”

As a former trial and appellate attorney for the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia as well as a former intern in the Criminal Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Professor Erin Murphy spoke to the value of undecided students' trying both sides. Ultimately, she said, she wasn’t comfortable sending people to jail. “Prosecutors have a lot of power.... That power, I think, is best wielded by those who are not zealously embracing it.... For me it was helpful to remind myself of, you know, my ability to really focus in like a pit bull on something and not let go—probably not a good idea to do that with the entire police force behind me.”

Former New Jersey attorney general Anne Milgram ’96, now a senior fellow at the Law School’s Center on the Administration of Criminal Law, addressed the quandary of how to define social justice: “Is it cases? Is it policies? Is it representing a defendant in a murder case? Is it prosecuting a murder case where there’s an innocent victim and family members who have suffered a horrible wrong? It can also be clean air and clean water.”

Despite her previous status as New Jersey’s top cop, Milgram didn’t favor one side over the other: “I do not care what you do. What I care about is that you all find work that makes you happy, and that you all try to remember at every job that you take and that you do, at the end of the day we are not judged by cases or briefs or the exams that you’re writing. My personal view is we’re judged by kindness, integrity, and our sense of justice.”

Posted on February 3, 2012