Previously glazed eyes and slouching postures perked up in a moment, some in interest, some in confusion and some in alarm, as Director of the Missouri State Public Defenders Michael Barrett laid out his warning for the state of the constitution in the United States.
“We have slowly, and perhaps unwittingly, weakened our own civil rights because we as a culture have abandoned our support for constitutional principles in favor of blindly supporting groups,” Barrett said.
Barrett, a Northwest alumnus criticized Missouri legislators for under-funding public defenders and the importance of the 6th Amendment right to legal counsel at the annual Constitution Day event hosted by Pre-Law Society and the political science department Sept. 16.
Constitution Day is a national celebration every Sept. 17 to commemorate the ratification of the Constitution in 1787.
Pre-Law Society President Taylor Moore said the group had been in contact with Barrett about coming to speak at Northwest, and Moore knew he was passionate about the 6th Amendment, which influenced the group’s decision to make that the focus of this year’s Constitution Day.
“I definitely think that talking about legal representation is beneficial in educating people,” Moore said. “Having someone speak on it to students is a good thing because you never know when either you or someone you know might need legal representation.”
Political science assistant professor Dan Smith said having students meet and learn from Barrett was a good learning experience for those planning to go into law, and there are several Northwest alumni working in the Missouri public defenders system.
Barrett said the 6th Amendment is important because without proper legal counsel, citizens can’t defend their other rights granted in the Bill of Rights if they are infringed upon.
“You have a right against self-incrimination; you have a right to not answer questions that could hurt your legal status,” Barrett said. “Are they going to, out of the goodness of their hearts, not ask you questions? Or is it the fear that they’re going to have to face a defense attorney and answer questions under oath and on record?”
Barrett said while he would describe Missouri as a pro-freedom, low-tax and tough-on-crime state; by not properly supporting citizen’s 6th Amendment rights, all of those principles are threatened.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2017, Missouri was the seventh highest state when ranked by incarcerated per capita, and Barrett said Missouri usually lands in the top 15 in the FBI’s ranking of violent crime rates by state.
Barrett attributed these high rates of crime and incarceration to Missouri underfunding and overworking state public defenders.
“What we do, and what’s lost on elected officials in Jefferson City,” Barrett said. “is that we help, if funded appropriately, the state distinguish not just the guilty from the innocent, but those who need to go to state prison at considerable taxpayer expense from those who can stay in the community, be supervised and contribute to the tax base.”
Barrett said because public defenders are overloaded with cases and can’t devote attention to them all, only around 1% of cases go to trial, with most defendants accepting plea agreements.
Barrett said even the most unpopular people deserve a fair trial with capable counsel, citing the wildly unpopular British soldiers from the Boston Massacre who were defended by John Adams and acquitted.
“Do you think the Boston bomber’s lawyer could get elected president?” Barrett said. Some audience members shook their heads no. “Do you think that’s because we’re more pro-constitution now or because we’re less?”