In 19631 the Supreme Court made a promise, that no one would be forced to face a loss of liberty without a skilled advocate by their side. Anything less would amount to injustice. Fifty years later the promise is unfulfilled as public defenders are pressured to process human beings through a system that merely pays lip service to the hallowed right to counsel.
Many public defenders join the profession intent on serving as noble advocates for their clients, but quickly confront incredible pressure to help process their clients through a system plagued by a culture that assumes clients are guilty until proven innocent, undeserving of a thorough defense, and not the utmost priority. Nowhere is the evidence of our nation’s failings more concentrated than in the South. Many lawyers are overburdened with cases, many 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.
- Indigent criminal defendants plead guilty approximately 90%2 of the time.
- 80% of the people pulled into the criminal justice system are indigent (poor) and rely on court-appointed counsel.
- Despite making up only 12.6% of the US population3, the incarceration rate of African Americans compared to their white counterparts is 6 to 14; and for Hispanics the figures are 16.3% and 2 to 1, respectively.
As the injustices that result from our broken criminal justice system unduly affect poor people and people of color, the failure to ensure that our most vulnerable citizens have strong, well-prepared, and passionate advocates has become this generation’s greatest civil rights challenge.
We now know that a shocking number of Americans are convicted and sentenced for crimes they did not commit – all because they did not have an effective5 lawyer. Many others are locked away pending trial, based on the flimsiest of allegations, without meaningful access to counsel, frequently costing them their homes, jobs, and ability to care for loved ones. Not only do the accused suffer but families are left homeless, children parentless, and the community is further fragmented. Another generation grows up ill-equipped to make it in the world. The cycle continues…
1 On March 18, 1963, the Supreme Court decision in the landmark case, Gideon v. Wainwright, held that under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, legal counsel is to be provided in criminal cases for defendants who are unable to afford their own attorneys.
2 Marcus, Paul and Backus, Mary Sue, The Right to Counsel in Criminal Cases, A National Crisis (2006). Hastings Law Journal, Vol. 57, No. 6, p. 1031, 2005-2006; William & Mary Law School Research Paper No. 09-92. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1797783
3 Source: http://2010.census.gov/2010census/data
4 Source: http://www.sentencingproject.org/map/map.cfm
5 Under Strickland v. Washington ruling, any criminal proceeding in which counsel appears, the defendant is entitled to
counsel’s effective assistance.