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How Well are the Poor Publicly Defended? View Count: 504

In 1962, Clarence Earl Gideon penciled a plea for the Supreme Court detailing his plight as a man in jail for five years for stealing some Cokes and beer, but lacking the funds to hire a lawyer. This lead to 1963’s Gideon v. Wainwright ruling which stipulated that if a plaintiff is too poor to hire an attorney, one would be awarded him from the state. So how is that working out? Are the poor getting the representation they need? It seems not.


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Since 1963, the prison system has swelled from 217,000 inmates to 2.3 million. The war on drugs is a part of this prison overpopulation. What it amounts to is a system of annual caseloads that are requiring an average of 3,035 work hours for each lawyer – a year and a half’s worth in one year. Also, they are only getting paid $65 an hour for all their extra work. The demanding case loads leads them into a “meet ‘em and plead ‘em” mindset where public defense lawyers encourage their clients to simply plead guilty. That’s why 90 to 95 percent of them do plead guilty, says Tanya Greene, an ACLU attorney, according to Mother Jones, who says, “You’ve got so many cases, limited resources, and there’s no relief. You go to work, you get more cases. You have to triage.”

And these PDs are stuck with their caseload. 60 percent of state systems don’t let them dismiss cases they don’t have time for.

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Nevertheless, since “All men are created equal,” a defining sentiment of our nation, means especially, “we are all equal before the law,” that means that our national identity should be based on making sure all people, rich and poor, have an equal chance before the law. You can’t buy justice – the rich should have no privilege before the law. Yet the United States is a low spender when it comes to annual legal aid budget per inhabitant as a share of GDP per capita. The UK spends about 0.2 percent, and we are much closer to nearly 0 percent.

To live up to the American Dream, we must be spending more on making sure all people, even the poor, even the seemingly guilty as sin, are fairly represented. Also, decriminalizing as much as is just and reasonable could help alleviate our swollen justice systems. Certainly spending more money on justice for those who can’t afford it would substantiate our claim of being the “land of the free.”

How Well are the Poor Publicly Defended? by

  • Gary Shaffer

    The most repressive regimes in the world have never had as many of their people in jail as the United States does. Either in pure numbers or on a percentage basis. It is our greatest national shame. The war on drugs has wasted billions and billions of dollars and millions of lives. We throw people in jail for decades, provide no or little access to education or rehabilitation, we place prisoners in jails hundreds of miles from their families so they lose all family and community ties. The most pernicious drug in our society – alcohol – is responsible for more deaths and violence in our country than any illegal drug, yet we approach it (properly) as a problem to be addressed through treatment. It is taxed and regulated. But we throw young minority males in jail for peddling drugs that could also be legalized and whose use could be subject to regulation, like alcohol. But those who wreck our economy and steal trillions, and lobby for tax policy that funnels more and more money to the rich to the detriment of society, and push for punitive criminal sanctions for the poor, are allowed to spend freely and lavishly while chastising the have-nots for not behaving better. Those quick to quote the Bible to support a punitive society should read the parts that demand equal treatment for the poor and rich alike.

  • Tony V

    Poorly written piece. It does not do justice in explaining a very complex issue. First, the swelling of the prison population has been caused by many factors, including harsh 3 strikes laws, the war on drugs, over zealous and unreasonable Judges and prosecutors, and yes in SOME jurisdictions overworked and underpaid appointed panel lawyers or public defenders. However, the quality of public defender representation varies greatly throughout the country, with well regarded offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, an other large cities to places in this country that do not even have PD offices and instead appoint panel lawyers who are often inexperienced and appointed based on how “cooperative” they are with the very court that appoints them, go to trial to often and the phone stops ringing. I can go on and on, but I need to get to court. A film called “Gideon’s Army” will be released this summer documenting the struggle of Public Defender’s in the harsh and backwards South which further exemplifies issues of concern.

  • Gloria Wolk

    I’ll be watching for “Gideon’s Army”–thanks for the heads up, Tony V.

    When public defenders get little or no training, little or no supervision, and so many cases they are directed to “meet ‘em and plead ‘em,” we end up with innocent people in prison. And when the public defenders are so poorly qualified that a travesty like the conviction of Paul Cortez occurs–in New York, not the south–there clearly is a serious problem.

    I am assisting a young man who was wrongly convicted because his public defender did not trouble to examine the file, the lack of evidence, or discuss whether the defendant had an alibi, etc. Every bit of evidence needed to either acquit him at trial or exonerate him now is in the file. It did not require an investigator or DNA tests, just someone willing to peruse the file and link it to law, to show the numerous violations of his constitutional rights. I am not an attorney, which is further proof of the negligence of his public defender. (Note: I did not know this young man before he was referred to me for help.)

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Daniel June Posted by on May 7, 2013. Filed under Legal News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.



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