The Office of the Public Defender that Almost Wasn’t
By Al Macina
In March of 2001, Chilean criminal procedure reform was to take effect in the fourth and ninth regions of the country. Officials from the Ministry of Justice assembled in the regional capitals to work out final details. Justice personnel and criminal practitioners met in Temuco (region IX) and in La Serena (region IV) to at last give the reform life. Almost.
Apparently to solve logistical and budget problems in one fell swoop, some Ministry of Justice officials proposed that the procedural reform, with the purpose of providing fair representation to all, could be instituted without a public defense unit. In other words, the reform would go forward without public defenders and relying only on private attorneys to defend the people. These people of course almost always lack the resources to pay private attorneys to work in their defense.
A healthy uproar resulted from the Ministry of Justice’s suggestion. Defense attorneys in both regional capitals unanimously rejected the Ministry’s idea, resulting in a task force to plan what is now the defensoría. Over the course of five months, officials on the force scrambled to prepare a public defender system in the two regions that would provide the model for the rest of the country and eventually the metropolitan region of Santiago, home to a third of Chile’s fifteen million people.
Without the vision of these defense attorneys, gains for basic justice through the reform would have been lost and have left the public without a functioning defense. I expect several more of my weekly postings to focus on the bumpy road to reform and how dramatic a change it really is in this country.
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