Every day the criminal legal system hauls poor and marginalized individuals through a process wrought with trauma, indignity, and abuse. Public defenders representing the criminally accused view their clients and the system from a unique vantage point: they bear witness to the human costs of a system that falls far short of its purported norms and ideals. For the public defender who works within this reality day in and day out, fighting for each individual client might feel limited in its wider impact. Some public defenders have found that using online and social media platforms, such as Twitter, to provide insights and commentary on the human toll of the criminal legal system is one way to contribute to a deepened public awareness of the criminal legal system’s shortcomings. Indeed, while statistics about mass criminalization and mass incarceration provide powerful data points, narratives about the very real ways that clients experience being arrested, charged, processed and adjudicated can influence public debate and create momentum for both an individual case and more comprehensive systemic reform.
These online and social media narratives about clients can be powerful because they help to convey to unfamiliar audiences how the law is actually being experienced by those who have been marginalized because of their economic status, ability, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, or immigration status.1 While this can be a compelling and effective approach, public defenders need to consider what their ethical obligations are and also what a strong sense of social and professional responsibility requires. The deep racial disparities in the criminal legal system and the particularly unique vulnerabilities of the indigent criminal client necessitate that public defenders refrain from using client narratives in ways that may inadvertently oversimplify and exploit a client’s life experience. This article offers public defenders practical guidance on how to ethically and responsibly draw from their specialized knowledge and the experiences of their clients in order to expose systemic injustice.
Smith Futrell, Nicole, "Please Tweet Responsibly: The Social and Professional Ethics of Public Defenders Using Client Information in Social Media Advocacy" (2019). CUNY Academic Works.