The Importance of Improving Our Indigent Defense System

The Importance of Improving Our Indigent Defense System March 19, 2019

Yesterday was the 56th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Gideon v Wainwright, the landmark decision that said every criminal defendant has a right to a lawyer to defend them, even if they can’t afford one. That established the public defender system. Unfortunately, it’s almost useless at this point.

The justices recognized that the right to counsel is critical toward the principle of equal justice under the law, an important legal concept embedded in the 14th Amendment and even engraved on the Supreme Court building itself. But do poor defendants actually receive equal justice? While the courts have mandated representation for all, the dictate for equality before the law remains a lofty ideal, not a reality. As we rethink our criminal justice system, that must change if we wish to create a fairer, more just society…

Yet while all defendants are guaranteed a right to counsel, public defenders tend to have too-high caseloads and not enough time for each client. A recent New York Times article chronicled how one such public defender has nearly 200 clients and not enough time to devote to their individual cases. His workload is not unusual among public defenders or anything new, something made clear both in the documentary film “Gideon’s Army,” a 1980 movie based on the Gideon case, and by the fears expressed by the private bar in the 1930s about workload.

Issuing the opinion for the court in Gideon, Justice Hugo L. Black wrote that “there are few defendants charged with crime, few indeed, who fail to hire the best lawyers they can get to prepare and present their defenses.” What kind of “best” defense are poor defendants getting when their counsel is excessively overburdened and can only spend minutes with each client? In 2017, a Louisiana judge observed the state was “failing miserably at upholding its obligations under Gideon.”

I’ve told the story before about spending a day shadowing a public defender. It was shocking and appalling. The PD had no time or resources. He sat at a table with a long line of defendants he was to represent, none of whom he had ever met or spoken to. He didn’t even bother asking for their side of the story or if they’re innocent or guilty. All he could do was tell them what deal the DA was offering and encourage them to take it because he didn’t have the resources to put on a serious defense no matter how much he might want to.

Over 95% of all criminal cases end in guilty pleas because of this manifestly unjust system. We need national mandates, standards and funding for public defenders that gives them the same resources that we give to prosecutors if we want even a hypothetical chance at an actual justice system.

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