Why We Are Needed
In the 1963 landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously concluded that states have a constitutional obligation under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to provide counsel to indigent defendants in felony cases, stating that the ruling is “the start of a right to counsel revolution in the United States.” More than 40 years later, we are far from realizing the promise of the Supreme Court ruling.
While indigent defense is in a crisis nationally, nowhere is the problem more acute than in the southeastern states. Throughout the South, lawyers representing poor clients routinely carry crushing caseloads, advise clients to enter guilty pleas without any investigation, and try cases with little or no preparation. Many lawyers never see their clients outside of the courtroom, and in some jurisdictions, an arrestee unable to post bond can sit in jail for months effectively unrepresented by counsel. According to the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, 35 million Americans live below the poverty level and another 10 million have incomes that are less than 25% higher than poverty levels. Roughly 1 in 5 U.S. citizens is eligible for federally funded legal services. The need for legal services among the poor is significant, with 40% of low and moderate income households experiencing a legal problem each year. When those legal problems are criminal in nature, a lawyer may be appointed, but the vast majority of people are not getting constitutionally effective representation.
Inadequate representation risks the unthinkable of wrongful conviction. Defendants and their families suffer from undue pressure to take a plea, inappropriate sentencing, and the misery associated with our country’s failure to protect constitutional rights. All of society bears the cost of an inefficient legal system including expensive and often undue incarceration, a values system that fails to honor standards of due process and equal treatment, and the community divisiveness and greatly diminished sense of well-being that results from ignoring the needs and rights of our least fortunate citizens.
“While there are many reasons why our justice system far too often convicts innocent persons, clearly one of the best bulwarks against mistakes is having effective, well-trained lawyers.” (Source: “Gideon’s Broken Promise: America’s Continuing Quest for Equal Justice,” American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, December 2004).
The Southern Public Defender Training Center (SPDTC) is a program created to improve the quality of representation for indigent defendants across the Southern United States. Our mission is to provide outstanding public defender training to young lawyers and to develop a community of SPDTC members, graduates, public defender offices, and other organizations, tied together by the mutual objective to advance standards of public defense, and thereby optimize the collective ability to advocate for systemic indigent defense reform.
SPDTC was formed to inspire, mobilize and train legal professionals to provide the highest quality defense representation to people unable to afford an attorney. SPDTC lawyers, alumni, trainers, and partners are changing the culture of indigent defense, in the South and eventually across the country, ultimately ensuring that every person has access to justice. Our goal is to offer a “best-in-class” public defender training program, while also building a strong community of public defenders comprised of SPDTC members, graduates, faculty/mentors, and public defender offices, as well as organizations throughout the country, who are tied together by the common goal to reform public defense. By building this cohesive community, SPDTC strives to facilitate our collective ability to advocate for indigent defense reform at all levels of the court system.