It’s sad to think about our country having two criminal justice systems: one for people who are wealthy and one for people who are not. But that is the reality. Everyone facing serious criminal charges is supposed to get a lawyer – our Supreme Court decided decades ago that everyone has a right to an attorney when facing criminal charges that could result in prison time. And if you are too poor to afford counsel, the government is required to provide you with a public defender. But the fact is that our public defender system is such an impoverished disaster, that for many people, the right to counsel is almost meaningless.
If you were facing serious criminal charges, you would want your attorney to find and interview every witness, examine the evidence, read the police reports, and explore defenses, and to do so while the crime at issue is still fresh in everyone’s minds. The reality, however, is that many public defenders offices are so under-funded and under-staffed that there is no way for the attorneys to provide the accused with anything resembling a meaningful defense. For instance, in Fresno, California, a staff of 60 attorneys manage an annual caseload of 42,000 cases, with each attorney more than quadrupling the maximum number of cases recommended by the American Bar Association. An attorney at a Minnesota public defender office that filed a grievance about understaffing calculated that based on his caseload, he had about 12 minutes to devote to the clients whose cases were in court each day. In New Orleans, the public defender office is so understaffed and overwhelmed that it has simply refused to take on new felony cases. This means that poor people charged with felonies are left to either represent themselves or to wait in jail indefinitely, in the hopes of receiving a lawyer. And New Orleans is not alone in that regard. In many parts of the country, criminal defendants are made to wait months or years for public defender representation, typically waiting in jail because of cost-prohibitive bail.
Adding insult to injury, defendants are often charged for their public defenders – regardless of the outcome of their case or the quality of the representation – and they can find themselves facing jail time for failing to pay the legal bill. In a recent op-ed piece, the New York Times noted that 43 States require indigent defendants to pay at least a portion of their lawyers’ fees, even though these defendants are, by definition, poor.
When you look at many of the problems we discuss, like mass incarceration and wrongful convictions, it is not hard to make the connection: poor people are shuffled through the criminal justice system with little ability to address the issues that concern the wealthy, like innocence and appropriate sentences. But the rights to contest guilt or advocate for a just sentence are not luxuries that should only be afforded to the wealthy – they are basic human rights at the core of our nation’s values. It is time to properly fund the public defender system. Throughout the nation, state and county spending on public defenders amounts to barely 1% of the state and local governments’ annual criminal justice spending. The federal government contributes only a token amount. This neglect of the public defender system is the true crime.
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John Oliver discusses this issue and cynically re-writes the classic Miranda warnings – the part of the warnings where the cops tell the suspect that he has a right to an attorney, and if he cannot afford one, one will be appointed for him. If you have the time (and are not offended by John Oliver’s profanity), this is worth a watch…