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Sunday, March 17, 2013
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, which held that states are constitutionally required to provide defense lawyers to individuals charged with a felony and unable to afford a lawyer on their own.
Before 1963, individuals charged with a criminal offense were subject to a patchwork of state and local rules regarding their right to counsel. The Gideon decision generated hope that all states would meet their obligation to ensure the fundamental right to counsel in criminal prosecutions. No longer would justice depend on where you were charged or how much money you had.
Yet 50 years later, states may be providing lawyers, but they are failing to provide independent, skilled and adequately resourced lawyers — effectively denying many poor defendants the very right to counsel Gideon contemplated. All too often, those who represent poor defendants are burdened with excessive caseloads and lack the resources — funding, investigators and support staff — to offer their clients anything more than a perfunctory defense.
According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, Virginia has only about two-thirds of the public defenders it would need to meet the absolute maximum case load guidelines outlined by the Department of Justice’s National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals. While NAC guidelines suggest an attorney should handle no more than 75 felony cases and 200 misdemeanor cases, the average Virginia public defense attorney handles 119 felony cases and 155 misdemeanor cases annually. As a result, those accused of a crime suffer, victims suffer and justice suffers.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon was supposed to change all that. Clarence Earl Gideon was sentenced to five years in prison for breaking and entering a pool hall, reportedly to steal some wine and change from vending machines, a felony under Florida law. Gideon was too poor to hire his own attorney, and Florida refused to provide one. Gideon believed that he had a right under the U.S. Constitution to be provided an attorney and submitted a five-page, handwritten petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, appealing his conviction.
On March 18, 1963, in a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution required states to provide counsel for those too poor to afford it themselves, explaining that lawyers in criminal cases are “necessities, not luxuries.” The court stressed that the “noble ideal” of a fair trial before an impartial tribunal could not be realized “if the poor man charged with a crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.” Indeed, once Gideon received the valuable assistance of counsel at his second trial after the court’s decision, a jury acquitted him of all charges.
Unfortunately, despite this landmark ruling, experiences like that of Gideon still occur all too frequently. In 2009, The Constitution Project’s National Right to Counsel Committee issued a thorough report, “Justice Denied: America’s Continuing Neglect of Our Constitutional Right to Counsel,” describing the failure to meet Gideon’s promise in the 21st century. Throughout the United States, indigent defense systems are struggling as funding shortfalls, excessive case loads and lack of standards and oversight combine to deny justice to the poor.
Between 1999 and 2007, criminal case loads for Virginia public defender offices increased by 110 percent. Over that same period of time, funding increased by only 67 percent, and attorney staffing increased by a mere 14 percent. Virginia, like so many other states, is not only failing to improve its indigent defense system, but, by further cutting funding and resources, is allowing the system to get worse. The quality of justice continues to depend as much on one’s bank account as it does on one’s guilt or innocence.
Meaningful reform is achievable, but only when states make a commitment to justice. The National Right to Counsel Committee has made a series of recommendations about what states should do to ensure defendants’ constitutional right to counsel — providing adequate funding, developing performance standards and establishing manageable case loads. Fifty years after Gideon was decided, we have learned all too well that making indigent defense a priority is the only way to ensure that, 50 years from today, stories like Gideon’s will truly be a thing of the past.
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