I write to you today as my term as NACDL President draws to its close this Saturday. And for the first time ever, NACDL will live-stream its Annual Membership and Board Meeting for all NACDL members to watch. The meeting will take place on Saturday, August 15 (beginning at 9:00 a.m. ET). Interested members are asked to register in advance, no later than 12:00 p.m. ET on Friday, August 14, at www.nacdl.org/meeting/livestream/rsvp/. Everyone who has registered will receive an email Friday afternoon with the URL to view the meeting via live-stream.
In so many respects, this last year has been a remarkable one. I can say, without any hesitation, that this has been the most rewarding year of my professional life.
Recent challenges to our criminal justice system – in particular, those related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s manifold failures in its response – have been considerable. And NACDL has risen to the occasion. During this year, NACDL has made a real difference in how the criminal justice system responds to the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the American system of justice. In that regard, I am so grateful to have played a part in the unparalleled volunteer efforts of the brave and dedicated defense lawyers around the country who have sacrificed so much to protect the rights of the criminally accused, the lives of at-risk inmates, and the constitutional pillars of the criminal justice system.
We can all be so proud of the contribution NACDL and its partners have made to reducing local, state, and federal prison populations through its compassionate release efforts – saving the lives of incarcerated individuals at risk of contracting the disease because they can’t afford bail or are detained in facilities where social distancing and even minimal hygiene are nonexistent.
It also goes without saying that one of the greatest challenges we face is reconciling the unprecedented health risks posed by the virus, risks that disproportionately threaten communities of color, with the preservation of core constitutional rights. We must remain steadfastly committed to seeking release for incarcerated individuals who pose no risk to public safety, and to ensuring the right of every accused to the effective assistance of conflict-free counsel, the right of confrontation, the right to be tried by a jury comprised of a fair cross-section of the community, and the right to a speedy and public trial with adequate constitutional safeguards.
These fundamental liberty interests are being put to the test by scheduling in-person trials that are not certified as medically safe by independent medical experts, and by virtual court proceedings that are being transformed by video technology beset by digital divides and the desire of courts to move backlogged dockets. Virtual jury trials may become a reality before courts have any way of gauging whether virtual confrontation impairs effective cross-examination, or the ability of the factfinder to accurately gauge the credibility of witnesses.
We know that the need to prevent the spread of infection has burdened attorney-client relationships and replaced defendants’ rights to a face-to-face encounter with their accusers. We also know that the pandemic has exacerbated the historic failures of the criminal legal system. Not only did NACDL promptly build a public coronavirus resource for practitioners, advocates, the media, and members of the public, beginning at the start of the pandemic, NACDL also issued a groundbreaking report – Criminal Court Reopening and Public Health in the COVID-19 Era – as courts began taking steps to reopen.
We must all continue to dedicate ourselves to redressing these and other failures in our criminal justice system, including the erosion of the right to trial through coercive plea bargaining, structural discrimination based on race and socioeconomic status, the excessive use of pretrial detention, and institutional inequalities including underfunded public defense. I am confident that NACDL’s work in all of these areas, and more, will continue.
This week also happens to be the week, 62 years ago in Chicago, that NACDL was founded as the National Association of Defense Lawyers in Criminal Cases. There can be no doubt about the pivotal role this organization has played over these past decades!
Finally, I want to personally thank all the NACDL members, directors, and officers who have contributed so much, and the remarkable NACDL staff of whom I could not be more proud.
Best wishes for good health to you and yours,
Nina J. Ginsberg