Sudreau Global Justice Institute Helps to Establish New Public Defenders’ Division in Ghana
Public defenders, attorneys provided by the government without charge to criminal
defendants, and plea bargaining, the ability of defendants to relinquish their right
to go to trial in exchange for a perceived benefit such as a reduced sentence, are
foundational to the US criminal justice system. But until recently, neither existed
in the West African nation of Ghana. Among other unfortunate and sometimes devastating
outcomes, these systemic issues created a significant backlog of cases in the criminal
courts system, with many of the accused, especially the poor, spending months or even
years in prison before having the opportunity to defend themselves at trial—usually
without the assistance of a lawyer.
To address these injustices, Pepperdine’s Sudreau Global Justice Institute (SGJI), an international human rights organization based out of the Caruso School of Law, has successfully assisted the Ghanaian government to establish its first Public
Defenders’ Division (PDD) as part of its criminal justice system. SGJI is funded through
an $8 million endowment from Caruso Law alumna Laure Sudreau (JD ’97). Its mission
is to strengthen justice systems, defend the defenseless, and train the next generation
of law students to advocate on behalf of those in need.
“Reducing excessive pretrial detention is a primary focus of SGJI and is seen as one
of the leading justice issues on the African continent by the United Nations and the
US Department of Justice’s Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance,
and Training (OPDAT),” says Alan Collier (JD ’90), SGJI’s director of West Africa
since 2019. “In order for plea bargaining to work as a tool in reducing excessive
pretrial detention, there was a need to create a public defender system in Ghana to
support representation of the indigent.”
A worldwide movement to introduce plea-bargaining options in nations that do not currently
offer them is currently underway, and the concurrent establishment of public defense
programs is necessary for plea bargaining to work most productively.
“Without a lawyer, most defendants wouldn’t know how to plead effectively,” says Collier.
“When lawyers from both sides take a look at the evidence, many cases are dismissed.
And there’s also an option for restorative justice, where the victim is allowed to
speak in court. Sometimes what the victim wants is an apology from the person who
did them wrong. Sometimes the defendant is required to pay restitution. So this process
can be beneficial to crime victims as well as defendants. Plea bargaining is like
alternative dispute resolution in the criminal justice context.”
While Ghana has had a formal legal aid scheme since 1987, it had not focused primarily
on criminal defense, according to Collier. In 2018 the Ghanaian Parliament established
a formal Legal Aid Commission (LAC) through the Legal Aid Commission Act, which called
for the creation of the PDD, but getting such a complicated program off the ground
proved to be an enormous undertaking.
SGJI’s work in Ghana began in the summer of 2019 when the Supreme Court of Ghana brought
in two Pepperdine law students to act as legal interns and asked SGJI to assist the
government in developing its plea-bargaining system. Collier moved to the capital
city of Accra in September 2019 to establish SGJI’s physical presence in Ghana.
In November 2020, Collier began a partnership, based on SGJI’s and the US Department
of Justice’s common interest in promoting plea bargaining and public defense, with
William “Bill” Houser, the resident legal advisor at the US Embassy in Ghana.
“We met with the newly appointed chief justice, Anin Yeboah, and chair of the Legal
Aid Board, Justice Nene Amegatcher, to ask whether we could help lead an effort to
establish the PDD in Ghana,” says Collier, a meeting that resulted in the creation
of the Public Defense Steering Committee. Collier and Houser also teamed up with OPDAT
to train all lawyers working for the LAC in matters of criminal defense. Due to the
importance and scope of the project, OPDAT later commissioned a second legal advisor,
Paul Gill—a 20-year US federal public defender—to work with Collier and Houser to
implement the official launch of the PDD.
“Through the combined work of the LAC, OPDAT, and SGJI, 38 out of 54 legal aid lawyers
became public defenders exclusively working on criminal matters,” says Collier. “The
handling of criminal cases rose by 40 percent the first year and 50 percent the second
year. And those percentages are steadily increasing.”
Collier considers this work to be part of Pepperdine’s mission as a Christian university.
“People might ask why we want to help people who are in prison,” says Collier. “It’s
like working with any disenfranchised population that gets dehumanized. Jesus said,
‘I was in prison and you visited me.’ People in prison deserve to have a voice, and
poverty should not be a crime. Many of those we find incarcerated are merely there
because they are poor, and no one has ever spoken to them or looked into their cases,
many of which are unfounded or false. Public defense is a step forward in battling
the issue of unjust incarceration.”
Working with OPDAT, the US State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and
Law Enforcement Affairs, the Ghanaian Attorney General’s Office, and local nongovernmental
organizations, plea-bargaining legislation was successfully passed in Ghana in July
2022, and the PDD was launched on May 10, 2023. The US government was represented
at the PDD’s official launch event (pictured above) by Caruso Law alumna Rachel Rossi
(JD ’09), director of the US Department of Justice’s Office for Access to Justice,
who delivered an address about the importance of the role of public defenders in protecting human rights,
defending the rule of law, and upholding the integrity of justice systems.
Successes like these are the inspiration for SGJI’s continuing efforts to help Ghana
improve its criminal justice system. “We want the PDD to lead the way in the implementation
of plea bargaining as a tool to fight excessive pretrial detention,” says Collier.
“We hope to double the number of public defenders over the next few years. Ghana is
a model democracy in West Africa and could serve as a great example to other nations
in the region.”
For 25 years, Collier practiced law at a firm based in New York and Los Angeles that
specializes in international aviation law, and for the past seven years, he has served
as an independent legal consultant for the aviation industry. Yet he considers his
accomplishments with SGJI to be some of his most rewarding career achievements.
“Being asked by President Gash to move to Ghana to help pioneer SGJI’s work in West
Africa has been one of the highlights of my legal career,” he says. “Using my legal
training to help those without a voice is what drives me every day and is at the heart
of the work of SGJI. I always wanted to use my legal degree to help people, and this
program has given me the opportunity to do that. Pepperdine gave me a scholarship
to law school, so this is my way of giving back to Pepperdine. I’m happy to serve
here because I love Pepperdine. I love Ghana, too.”