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Sudreau Global Justice Institute Helps to Establish New Public Defenders’ Division in Ghana

Formal launch event for Ghana Public Defenders' Division

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 Jim 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.”