First Defense Legal Aid Helps Close a Key Gap in Access to Justice on the Criminal Side of the System

When someone gets arrested, the first 48 hours can be a critical time. During this period, police officers have access to any number of resources that detainees may not, including access to the State’s Attorney for legal counsel. Low-income detainees, on the other hand, rarely have legal representation at this point and often don’t understand all of their rights in what can be a very intimidating situation for them.

In Illinois, people who are arrested and need legal counsel but cannot afford it have to wait until a hearing from a judge to have a public defender appointed for them. The problem, however, is that this appointment can take 48-72 hours to take place and happens usually after the arrestee has been formally charged. When looking at the numbers, this lack of legal help for detainees is striking. In 2016, only 1% of almost 87,000 people arrested and in the custody of the Chicago Police Department had access to an attorney.

Since 1995, First Defense Legal Aid one of the many outstanding organizations you support through the Investing in Justice Campaign has fought to level the playing field by providing services that assist those in custody from the point of arrest and, more recently, through advocacy work to reform the system. FDLA is unique in that it is the only organization in the country that offers free, 24-hour legal representation through a hotline. This hotline allows for all Chicago residents to connect with a FDLA staff attorney or volunteer private attorney for general legal advice or actual representation in the police station.

Although the hotline has proven to be extremely valuable, systemic problems have persisted for FDLA as there have been instances where detainees have been unable to get access to the organization’s services. In addition, a constant challenge is the general lack of awareness of the fact that so many detainees do not receive legal representation in police stations.

Recently, FDLA’s advocacy work led to a groundbreaking reform: an order signed by the Circuit Court of Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans on March 14th. Essentially, this order allows for those detained by Chicago police to be granted access to an attorney at no charge and means that arrestees will no longer have to wait for a hearing from a judge to receive legal counsel.

Detainees still must first ask to speak with an attorney; however, this order now requires Chicago police stations with lock-up facilities to post signs that provide the number for assistance from either a public defender or FDLA. Since the duty is still on the arrestee to request an attorney, problems could continue to persist, but FDLA’s executive director, Eliza Solowiej, hopes to continue to work closely with the Public Defender’s Office to further institutionalize the need for a public defender from the point of arrest.

Another key component of FDLA’s work is the Street Law Program, centered on educating individuals in Chicago on their rights when stopped, searched or arrested by police. Through this program, FDLA and volunteers make Know Your Rights presentations to youth throughout the Chicago community. FDLA has utilized a number of different media outlets to get their message across, including: a CTA ad, a jingle, a music video and a YouTube video that has reached over 3 million views.

Moving forward, Eliza wants to continue educating both the public and elected officials on the importance of legal representation¬†and hopes to eventually put FDLA out of business. She believes that FDLA’s quest for all CPD detainees to have access to a public defender is so achievable that someday FDLA will no longer be needed.