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How Well are the Poor Publicly Defended?
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.
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.
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.”