Vanita Gupta of the Center for Justice and Ezekiel Edwards of the ACLU have a column at the Huffington Post documenting the ongoing crisis in our public defender system. On the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in Gideon v Wainwright, the promise of giving the indigent a competent legal defense remains unfulfilled nearly everywhere.
Yet in the half-century since the decision, most states have fallen woefully short of the actual realization of what Justice Hugo L. Black called a “noble ideal.” For millions of indigent defendants, Gideon’s trumpet has remained silent. As Attorney General Holder has stated, “[t]he basic rights guaranteed under Gideon have yet to be realized. Millions of Americans still struggle to access the legal services that they need and deserve – and to which they are constitutionally entitled.”
The two primary causes of this crisis are too little funding and too many cases. Nationwide, indigent defense services are drastically underfunded, preventing states from providing effective assistance of counsel, not to mention investigators and experts, and compound the difficulty of attracting qualified public defenders. Some counties in Pennsylvania, for example, spend only $3 or less per capita on indigent defense. Some states and counties award flat fee contracts to the lowest bidders – i.e., lawyers who will handle the most cases at the lowest costs.
In addition, as Attorney General Eric Holder has observed, 75 percent of public defender offices have crushing caseloads that prevent basic case investigations. For instance, in 2007 the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 64 percent of indigent prisoners detained following arrest did not meet their lawyers until after at least one week later. In Louisiana and Mississippi, people detained after arraignments can languish for weeks, even months, in legal limbo, before meeting with their attorney or having anyone investigate their case. Excessive caseloads are in part a consequence of over-criminalization of low-level, non-violent activity. According to the National Center for State Courts, approximately 80 percent of state cases are misdemeanors.
The daily injustices suffered nationwide by indigent defendants are staggering. Many are without lawyers at bail hearings, which leaves people incarcerated until trial because they cannot afford bail. Overburdened or poorly trained lawyers fail to consult with clients, investigate pending charges, file critical motions, or adequately explain plea offers and their consequences. Simply put, too often life-changing events occur in the legal system in the absence of competent counsel.
A 2009 report on the indigent defense system here in Michigan found that in the city of Detroit, the public defenders handle an average 2400 cases a year. The ABA standard for public defenders is 400. Justice isn’t even a hypothetical possibility under such circumstances.