We’re going to France to check out their new system for providing FREE, immediate access to counsel for every arrestee. Country by country, Europe is using the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (one of my favorite documents- read it and read it again at http://goo.gl/sQh6cy) and other conventions to require actual access to legal counsel for children and adults under arrest! (Learn more April 24, 2014 at http://jjustice.org/counsel-station-house-summit).

Last summer, my new friend Dominique Hill, a West Indian attorney trained and working in France, visited Chicago to learn about how different NGOs coordinate legal aid to poverty-stricken People of Color. She practices with a racial justice lens in family, contract, housing law and more. When she heard about what First Defense does, she told us about Bordeaux, France. Surprisingly, it sounds a lot like Chicago — and gives us some inspiration for what could happen here, to prevent police crimes and the routine denial of access to civil and human rights for detainees.

She said: in France, the poorest Black, Arab and other immigrants, especially youth, have suffered notorious police violence and human and civil rights abuses during custodial investigations. This came to light when DNA evidence exonerated many people who had served decades for wrongful convictions based on false confessions (sounds familiar, right?). In addition to the settlements they got from the government, they demanded a systemic solution for a systemic problem.

While there was already a right to counsel for detainees, there was no real access to lawyers in police stations (déjà vu, n’est-ce pas?). With pressure from the European Union and Human Rights Court, France instituted a policy to prevent future false confessions and change the culture of policing to require officers to promptly report misconduct or face termination and prosecution: free lawyers are to be immediately available to every arrestee. So it is possible, just as First Defense Legal Aid has been advocating for some time!

Through the Chicago Community Trust Emerging Leaders fellowship, I will travel to see first-hand the logistics of how access to counsel is provided to all. So far, I’ve heard from Ms. Hill that all police in France must call from a list of volunteer defense attorneys as soon as they make an arrest, then wait 2 hours for defense counsel to arrive before talking to the suspect. The volunteer list is managed by a bar association, that asks members if they’ll take shifts on-call, and if so, when and for what stations. If they are then called in, the municipal government issues a nominal payment of ~$30-$50 (USD equivalent?).  Here in Chicago, prosecutors are the only attorneys police call for their detainees, and those they hold under arrest are not even given access to make their own phonecalls until after the investigation is over.

But back to France…

According to Ms. Hill, police follow the rules and report on their peers who don’t, knowing that defense counsel will be involved immediately to document injuries and other evidence, and point them out as accomplices if they do not come forward. Dominique explained that prosecutions and termination of police have increased, while deaths and hospitalizations of suspects have decreased, because the police stations are open to advocates to watchdog the investigations and protect the rights of arrestees regardless of their race and ability to pay. Could all this be true? Is there a best practice that can lead to the same desperately needed results in Chicago? I am about to lead a delegation to the source, to find out.

Of course, the French legal system varies from ours. But, we are at a very similar place in Chicago as they were in Bordeaux when this change came about: Last year, a federal jury acknowledged a code of silence at every level of our police department including the superintendent; “60 Minutes” named Chicago the false confession capital(http://www.cbsnews.com/news/chicago-the-false-confession-capital/); exonerees’ stories and City pay-outs are making local, national, and international news; former commander Jon Burge is behind bars; yet the City of Chicago has made no new policy to interrupt and prevent the epidemics of false confessions and police misconduct. Meanwhile, the police accountability movement is growing: families of those killed by Chicago police officers successfully demanded the indictment of young Rekia Boyd’s killer, an off duty cop, after 70+ such killings, primarily of Black youth, evaded the criminal system (recent news story at http://goo.gl/BQVf0o).

Please stay tuned as we find out more, and from more perspectives, on the ground. We will host a series of public forums upon our return, to report back to the community, discuss what we’ve learned and what it could mean for Chicago, and what we must do to get everyone real access to counsel during that crucial first 48-72 hours people are currently held incommunicado (without contact with anyone but police and prosecutors).

On a related note, you probably already know that we are committed to including those most impacted by police injustice, at every level of First Defense’s work. As a result, we are working to help a young social justice leader be able to join this important fact-finding delegation. If you would like to contribute any amount to their travel expenses, please contact me at Eliza@First-Defense.org.

Thank you so very much.

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