What would happen if every single person accused of a crime in this country got a lawyer who his knew his name? Why he had been arrested? His version of events? His witnesses? His evidence? His case?
What? That doesn’t happen?
No, actually. All across the country overburdened public defenders are, as one New Orleans attorney told me, “up to [their] armpits in alligators.” They meet their clients on the fly, stand in court hallways to discuss strategy, seek whispered confidences in jail rooms crowded with other inmates, ask intimate, serious, and sometimes life-and-death questions about cases in perched on benches in the back of courtrooms. They regularly introduce themselves to their clients for the first time moments before the accused goes before the judge for the first time. They advise their client on the best way to proceed—plead guilty? Go to trial?—knowing little about the facts of the case or the even what evidence may be available.
Public defenders across the nation are juggling huge caseloads. The poor are paying a high cost. The US Justice Department has documented how overworked public defenders are handling anywhere from 200 to 2,226 felony and misdemeanor cases in a single year, compared to private attorneys who would consider 100 clients a crushing workload.
And everybody in the legal community knows this. In writing my book, Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest for Poor People’ Justice, which comes out tomorrow, I stepped inside their world and witnessed a major crisis in the courts.
In the last 10 years there have been blue ribbon panels, studies, reports, commissions all across the criminal justice system documenting the problem of indigent defense. The legal community is throwing up a red flag; if public defenders can’t properly defend their clients, poor people’s constitutional rights are being violated on a daily basis. This runs counter to the intent of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in a case called Gideon v. Wainwright.
Exactly 50 years ago today, on March 18, 1963, the Supreme Court told a poor man named Clarence Earl Gideon that yes, indeed, he did deserve a lawyer to stand next to him in court and defend him against burglary charges. The court agreed with the semi-literate Gideon who wrote to them and insisted, “It makes no difference how old I am or what color I am or what church I belong to….all countrys try to give there citizens a fair trial and see to it that they have counsel.”
Gideon won his right to have an attorney stand beside him in court. However, as the intervening years of the War on Drugs, mandatory sentencing, and lengthy pretrial waits have flooded the courts, defendants often have an attorney standing beside them in name only.
What if the American public, instead of nodding their heads as law-and-order politicians filled the nation’s courts and prison, stood up and said, “Wait, that’s not fair.” What if they said the quality of representation a defendant gets shouldn’t hinge on how much money he has?
Now that, would be audacious.