Opinion: Promoting crime

POSTED: 09/10/13 2:29 PM

Hans Werdmölder, a cultural anthropologist and criminologist posed an interesting question in an op-ed in the Volkskrant yesterday. “Is it not so that crime is being promoted when starting criminals know there are always free lawyers at the ready?”

The state-appointed attorney is a basic right for all citizens that are not in the position to pay hefty legal fees. Werdmölder questions this right and in the process he blames attorneys for their at times aggressive advertising and their sleek ways of generating free publicity. While this could all be true, and while attorneys in the Netherlands indeed could tone it down a bit – as we will show with a couple of examples Werdmölder presents in his op-ed – it can of course not be so that criminal suspects become the victim of this train of thought.

The author refers to the case of the linesman that was kicked to death in Almere in December of last year. Every suspect has at least one attorney. Bon, that’s the way it should be. But Werdmölder reasons that these lawyers are not in it for the suspects, but for the free publicity. Bram Moszkowicz, who was thrown out of his profession earlier this year, was the champion in generating free publicity.

Werdmölder thought he’d seen it all, until he got his hands on a copy of Bonjo, a magazine for inmates and ex-inmates. Its June copy contained almost fifty ads of attorneys that practice criminal law.

Here are some of the ad-slogans. “The fastest way to the outside!” and “Leave the prison without paying.” One law office even promotes itself with a picture of a dangerous looking bull terrier and the text: criminal law attorneys that bite hard.

One law office in Amsterdam advertises the damages citizens are entitled to for unjust detainment: €105 ($140) for a night in a police cell and €80 ($107) for a night in prison. In St. Maarten, detainees get just 50 guilders per day, or $28.

Werdmölder notes that the law offices that advertise in Bonjo have established themselves in top locations. “In the pictures I see tidy heads of successful gentlemen and ladies, often in their thirties. Their attitude is self-conscious. The men stand with their arms crossed and the women hold their arms loosely along their body. The confreres are dressed in fast suits and only a few of them wear a tie. The ladies – in this profession called colleagues – were elegant deux-pieces. They are all “involved, professional and available” but also “experienced, sly and driven.”

Werdmölder is not ready with the legal professionals yet: you wonder whose side they are on, he wonders. Are they only in the service of their office that has to generate revenue or do they also have a social function?

Until 1989 attorneys were not allowed to advertise with the argument that this would damage the reliable, noble and sacrosanct status of the profession. It was – until 1989 – not chic to make publicity for yourself. Werdmölder notes that the legal profession has become business, though advertising success rates and the names of celebrity clients is still prohibited.

Werdmölder furthermore claims that attorneys are always ready to take on a case, also on appeal. Would it not be in the client’s interest, he wonders, to tell a client that something does not serve his interest or that he will have to pay a certain part himself? The criminologist answers his own question in the affirmative.

Many criminals “know from experience that there is always a social worker or a pro deo attorney ready to get them out of their quandary. Being locked up is a business risk. Attorneys ought to choose a much more reserved approached, while suspects must “sit on their blisters.”

We checked how law offices in St. Maarten go about their business and we found that they are playing it rather cool. The only claims we found in advertisements in the yellow pages were “the oldest law firm in the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba. Founded in 1938 (HBN Law) and “the oldest and largest law firm on the island (Gibson and Associates). Some law offices specify their fields of expertise (Bermon Law does this exhaustively), and one office (Stomp) proudly announces: “Nous parlons Francais.”

These ads pale compared to what law offices in the United States do. (See illustration for example).

In general, it is all pretty low key in St. Maarten, exactly the way Werdmölder likes to see it. But his argument is flawed where he states that “suspects must sit on their blisters.” Since when is that so? Suspects are exactly what the word says: suspects. They are innocent until proven guilty.

Werdmölder’s parting shot: “Crime should not pay and soliciting attorneys ought to be aware of that.”

What the author does not seem to realize is that criminal defense attorneys are – if one would want to put it that way – on the side of the criminals, not on the side of the prosecution. That’s the way the system works. They play a role in the right to a fair trial – and in our opinion, it ought to stay that way.


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