In the US, when a police officer reads a person being arrested their Miranda rights (“You have the right to remain silent…” ), that person’s right to an attorney is usually assumed to be part of the deal. This weekend, (Sept. 13) John Oliver debunked that assumption during his show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, arguing that free legal representation in the US isn’t always free.
Oliver explained that legally mandated legal representation does not always mean the accused get their fair day in court. That’s partly because public defenders are overworked and underpaid. In Fresno County, for instance, public defenders reportedly deal with more than 1,000 clients per year, even though the state suggests they only work on 150. He noted that New Orleans found some of their part-time defenders could only spend an average of seven minutes on each case—about enough time, Oliver said, to rank the Muppets in order of sex appeal.
In New Orleans, Oliver offered, the public defender’s office has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fill the gaping hole in their budget (and has only raised 19% of its $50,000 goal).
As a result, Oliver explained, the accused who are offered public defenders often just plea guilty, even if they’re innocent. Given the circumstances, Oliver proposed a rewrite of the Miranda warning to accurately prepare people who get arrested. In a skit after Oliver’s monologue acted out by stars from legal dramas including The Wire’s Sonja Sohn, and Law and Order’s Danny Pino and Robert John Burke, Pino, posing as a cop, asks a man in handcuffs: ”Do you understand your rights as I have explained them to you?” No, the handcuffed man responds. Actor Dennis Quaid, another cop in the skit, clears things up: “Basically, you’re fucked.”