If clothes make the man, an inmate with nothing to wear but stained jeans and a T-shirt doesn't cut a very impressive figure in court.
Assistant Public Defender Connie McGhee says her clients' wardrobes have troubled her for years. By last spring, she had seen too many of her clients - many in jail since their arrest - come poorly dressed to court.So McGhee and another Essex County public defender, Melody Merola, organized a clothes service in a hall closet.
"I decided, `Why not have a few things here at the office?"' McGhee recalled. "We call it `the PD boutique.' The name stuck."
Defense attorneys say they know clothing can prejudice a jury, and they are wary of clothes-conscious judges. McGhee said she's seen clients reprimanded from the bench for improper attire.
"I think there's always a difference between a person who's neatly dressed as opposed to one who comes to court in cutoffs and a T-shirt," she said. "A court of law is a place of respect."
With donations from 40 attorneys and the public, the closet has begun to fill up. The office now can loan six suits, 17 pairs of pants and 20 shirts for men. Many more clothes are available for women, but they are a small portion of the office's clients.
Located in New Jersey's largest city and representing a clientele often too poor to post even the lowest bail, the public defenders' clothes service was an immediate hit, the lawyers say.
The public defenders want their clients wearing "the kind of clothes that, walking down the street, you wouldn't look at them twice," Merola said. "It becomes very, very important that the client is afforded the basic dignity of looking decent."