One of Last Week Tonight host John Oliver’s greatest talents is his ability to present society’s most glaring systemic flaws in a way so clear it’s both eye-opening and horrifying, from the grotesqueness of FIFA’s greed to televangelists scamming gullible Americans out of millions of dollars. This Sunday, Oliver shed light on America’s broken public-defender system, which, absurdly, leaves the poor and the weak most vulnerable to injustice.
But first, in a lighter-hearted segment, Oliver took aim at his own country’s now longest-serving monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, whom he described as “pointless” before making fun of her clothes and resting bitch face. An English reporter assigned to cover the queen on her special day as she opened a train line in Scotland compared the 89-year-old to a train that “just keeps chugging along.”
“You cannot compare Queen Elizabeth to a train,” Oliver said. “For one thing, people need trains. Trains still serve a practical purpose in the modern era. You’re being mean to trains.” Oliver then gleefully ran through a list of comparisons for the Queen’s trademark brightly colored hats, ranging from “a baby Smurf’s uncircumcised penis” to “a penis that’s literally died of embarrassment” to “fettuccini alfredo.”
“Essentially what I’m saying is, congratulations, Your Majesty,” Oliver said. “You have spent 63 years doing a job that could’ve effectively been done just as well by a Styrofoam mold of the human head.”
Back to America. The root of our broken public-defender system, as Oliver presents it, is the crushing caseloads most of America’s publicly funded lawyers are burdened with. The right to an attorney, as outlined in the Sixth Amendment, is supposed to guarantee the accused a fair trial, regardless of whether they can afford a lawyer. But, as Oliver highlights, there are too many places like Fresno County, California, where each public defender handles a staggering 1,000 cases per year. That averages out to about three cases a day. Three cases: “that’s nearly Gerard Depardieu’s wine consumption at breakfast!” Oliver says, before citing another disheartening statistic, this time from a report that found that some part-time defenders in New Orleans spent just seven minutes on each case that landed on their desks. Seven minutes.
The New Orleans public defenders’ office, by the way, is seeking out the Internet’s favorite solution to financial woes: a Kickstarter. But unlike nobler Kickstarters seeking help in funding giant inflatable Lionel Richie heads, the New Orleans public defenders office’s crowdfunding effort has amassed just 9 percent of its goal so far. (Now that Oliver has highlighted their plight, that’s likely to change.)
In too many states, the right to have a lawyer offer you rushed, ill-advised counsel doesn’t even come free anymore. In 43 states, you can be billed for use of a public defender. “Which is absurd,” Oliver said. “You can’t tell people something’s free and then charge them for it. This is the American judicial system, not Candy Crush.” To put a human face on the inescapable black hole of the system’s costs on the poor, Oliver introduces us to Larry Thompson, a Florida man faced with felony charges for driving with a revoked license after multiple driving violations. Thompson couldn’t even afford the $50 fee it cost to apply for a public defender, so he stayed stuck in jail for 59 days before giving up and taking a plea deal.
Surprise, surprise: It turns out if you are found guilty in Florida—even if you took a plea deal—there’s an extra $100 fee for having used a public defender and another $100 fee to cover the prosecutions’ costs. On top of that, the court added partial payment fees for each month Thompson didn’t pony up the cash. Eventually, he was re-arrested for contempt of court for being unable to pay the hundreds he already owed in legal fees—and slapped him with another $210 in administrative fees. Oh, and Thompson was arrested while receiving hospice care for a terminal pulmonary condition, which meant he was chained by his ankles to a hospital bed and monitored by two guards.
“None of this makes any sense. It doesn’t even make fiscal sense,” Oliver said. “The state of Florida did collect the money Larry owed them, but spent thousands of dollars in needlessly imprisoning him. Surely Florida could have used that money for something they actually need, like rehab programs for meth-addicted swamp raccoons.” Think of the raccoons, people.