Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The State of Indigent Defense

Last month I blogged about an op-ed from former Veep Walter Mondale in which he argued that the promise of Gideon - that every person charged with a crime that could result in imprisonment should have legal representation - is not being met. Today, a group of which Mondale is a co-chair, the National Right to Counsel Committee of The Constitution Project, released a report that largely came to the same conclusion:

'It does not paint a pretty picture,' said Tim Lewis, one of the report's authors.

Lewis is a former federal judge who co-chairs the Constitution Project's National Right to Counsel Committee. His group spent five years studying indigent defense in every state. Lewis said far too many states fail miserably.

'You should not have a better shot at justice, a better opportunity for an adequate defense, depending upon who arrests you in this country or where you were when you were arrested or what court system a defendant winds up in,' Lewis said. 'This is a basic constitutional right.'
Lest you think this conclusion comes from a bunch of bleeding heart defense attorneys, committee members include judges and prosecutors, too.

At bottom, the problems come down to lack of resources. That lack leads to many indigent defenders - either full time PDs or private attorneys who take appointments - to have crushing caseloads that prevents them from providing the necessary amount of attention to every case. The report (which you can read here) also takes issue with the "tough on crime" stance of most politicians, which has not only created more severe consequences for criminal convictions, but greatly expanded the amount of conduct that qualifies as "criminal."

The solution, ultimately, is more money and more of a concern on the part of politicians to adequately address these problems (the report provides 22 specific recommendations). I won't hold my breath waiting for it to happen.

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