Anthony J. Benedetti’s career has been dedicated to the proposition that everyone, no matter how poor or how horrendous the accusation against them, has the right to due process and a fair shot at receiving justice.
That mind-set prompted Benedetti, a 1993 graduate of Suffolk University Law School, to work for the Massachusetts Committee for Public Counsel Services -- the state agency that provides legal services to the indigent -- while still in law school. He started out in the newly formed Audit and Oversight Department, then, after he earned his juris doctor, joined the Committee's Brockton office as a staff attorney representing criminal defendants in cases of all kinds, “from attempted murder on down.”
Now Benedetti is chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services. He participated in a panel discussion convened by the Law School’s Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service, the American Constitution Society, and the Committee for Public Counsel Services to mark the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright, which gave poor people accused of crimes the right to counsel, regardless of ability to pay.
Reflecting on his experiences, Benedetti says: “Once you get into the system, you realize how much unfairness there is and how stacked in favor of the government it is in individual cases.”
As Committee for Public Counsel Services general counsel, from 1998-2010, he worked to redress that balance. In his role as liaison to the state executive, legislative and judicial branches on budget and policy proposals, he helped secure an hourly pay increase for private attorneys working for the committee and advanced legislation to establish a process providing compensation for the wrongfully convicted.
And as Committee for Public Counsel Services chief counsel since August 2010, Benedetti has presided over a period of rapid expansion, seeing 62 percent growth in staff over the past two years. With a $195 million budget, a team of around 520 staff attorneys and support personnel based in 28 offices across Massachusetts, and about 3,000 assigned private lawyers, the agency now provides legal representation to around 285,000 indigent clients annually.
“I don’t know what it would be like to work at a place where it was just a job,” says Benedetti, who has always treated his clients with respect and dignity and worked to unearth the human story behind their alleged crimes.
A card with the message: “Keep Calm and Carry On” stands on the corner of Benedetti’s desk. Yet there are plenty of issues that could disturb the desired calm. The Committee, like every other segment of the Massachusetts criminal justice system, is dealing with the fallout from the alleged misconduct of chemist Annie Dookhan and systemic oversight lapses at the Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Jamaica Plain from 2003-2012.
“Thousands of individuals’ rights have been affected by this drug lab fiasco, and the entire system is in crisis,” says Benedetti, referring to Dookhan’s alleged mishandling of drug evidence and overall conditions at the lab. He estimates the scandal might affect a staggering 190,000 cases, many handled by the Committee for Public Counsel Services.
In light of the current pressure on his agency and staff, negative media stereotypes of public defenders are particularly galling, says Benedetti.
“We recruit people who are passionate about public service and representing those who are less fortunate” he says. The starting salary for a CPCS staff attorney is $40,000, and many of his defenders “could have gone to a big firm and made a lot of money” instead of choosing a service-centered career path.
“People don’t hear enough about the good things government workers do and the sacrifices they make for not a lot of money,” says Benedetti. He credits his “great staff and great management team” with inspiring him every day to pursue their shared mission: “that every single client, whether criminal or civil, whether represented by staff attorney or private attorney, receives the best possible representation that he or she is entitled to.”