“The Right to Counsel: Badly Battered at 50″ (At a Great Moment for Hope and Change)

(Douglas A. Berman) The title of this post is drawn in part from the headline of this notable commentary by Lincoln Caplan, which appeared in yesterday’s New York Times.  Here are excerpts (with a final key point stressed by me below):

A half-century ago, the Supreme Court ruled that anyone too poor to hire a lawyer must be provided one free in any criminal case involving a felony charge.  The holding in Gideon v. Wainwright enlarged the Constitution’s safeguards of liberty and equality, finding the right to counsel “fundamental.”  The goal was “fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law.”

This principle has been expanded to cover other circumstances as well: misdemeanor cases where the defendant could be jailed, a defendant’s first appeal from a conviction and proceedings against a juvenile for delinquency.

While the constitutional commitment is generally met in federal courts, it is a different story in state courts, which handle about 95 percent of America’s criminal cases.  This matters because, by well-informed estimates, at least 80 percent of state criminal defendants cannot afford to pay for lawyers and have to depend on court-appointed counsel.

Even the best-run state programs lack enough money to provide competent lawyers for all indigent defendants who need them.  Florida set up public defender offices when Gideon was decided, and the Miami office was a standout.  But as demand has outpaced financing, caseloads for Miami defenders have grown to 500 felonies a year, though the American Bar Association guidelines say caseloads should not exceed 150 felonies.

Only 24 states have statewide public defender systems. Others flout their constitutional obligations by pushing the problem onto cash-strapped counties or local judicial districts.

Lack of financing isn’t the only problem, either. Contempt for poor defendants is too often the norm.  In Kentucky, 68 percent of poor people accused of misdemeanors appear in court hearings without lawyers.  In 21 counties in Florida in 2010, 70 percent of misdemeanor defendants pleaded guilty or no contest — at arraignments that averaged less than three minutes….

The powerlessness of poor defendants is becoming even more evident under harsh sentencing schemes created in the past few decades.  They give prosecutors, who have huge discretion, a strong threat to use, and have led to almost 94 percent of all state criminal cases being settled in plea bargains — often because of weak criminal defense lawyers who fail to push back….

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