Defending the prawns

For an attorney who just won his first case before the Minnesota Supreme Court, Brad Colbert doesn’t sound all that happy.

“I love my job, don’t get me wrong,” says the Kingfield husband and father of two who, as a public defender, represents some of the dregs of society while teaching a class on the prison system at William Mitchell College of Law. “It’s just that when I started, we had five lawyers doing my job: civilly helping inmates. When I’d go to conferences, they’d say, ‘Who funds you?’ I’d go, ‘The State of Minnesota.’ They’d say, ‘Only in Minnesota,’ and they meant that as the highest compliment: ‘What a civilized place.’ That’s what we were, even with my clients who have done a lot of uncivilized things. No more.”

Get Colbert going on some of the things he’s seen, and the way the system treats criminals — especially in the last 10 years — and a familiar countenance takes hold. His lips purse, he shakes his head, grins a wan grin, clams up, and finally gathers himself for another shot.

“I’ve been practicing law for 25 years,” he says, “and the idea in Minnesota always was ‘We’re different in Minnesota, and the people who we are incarcerating are us.’ When I started, there were 50 women in prison. Now there’s 10 times that. What has happened is we’ve come to demonize them. They are not ‘us.’ It used to be, you’d go to the Legislature and the people who testified on behalf of the prisoners were from the Corrections Department, and that’s changed. The Corrections Department has become more hard-bitten, and I think they’re less effective that way.”

Colbert’s latest battle came three years ago when “tons” of his clients started writing him, telling him they were being billed for time spent in prison. One of his clients was billed $7,000 for a short prison stay, and Colbert went to bat.

“We live in this world where we want to have this really hard incarceration, but we want to do it on the cheap,” he says. “So the idea is, charge the prisoners! But for my clients, you get out of prison and you can’t get a job because you’re a felon and on top of that they want you to pay s$7,000. So you’re too poor to post bail, and have the indignity of staying in jail while they’re presumed innocent, in addition to having to pay for it. It’s not right.”

The Minnesota Supreme Court agreed, and ruled in Colbert’s client’s favor. The two-year case concluded late last year, and a precedent has now been set that says prisoners can’t be charged for jail time until they’ve been convicted of a crime.

But why should anyone but the dregs’ family care if they’re getting a raw deal or not? The fact is, these aren’t kids or crime victims, of which there is no shortage of advocates out there. To be sure, there is no Nancy Grace equivalent to Brad Colbert, who fights the good fight for the bad guys every day. Why? Because this is still America.

“There’s something called ‘procedural justice,’ and that means you have to treat people fairly and you have to treat people who’ve done bad things fairly,” Colbert concludes. “And that [Supreme Court decision] is going to make everybody have more faith in the system — including my clients, who will buy into it if they get a fair shot. It’s just better for everyone.”

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.