According to the Guardian, America’s public defenders are overworked and underfunded. The situation has reached crisis levels in some states.
The Downward Spiral of Public Defense Since Gideon v. Wainright.
In 1963, the landmark Gideon v Wainwright U.S. supreme court ruling gave indigent criminal defendants who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer, access to legal counsel.
Unfortunately, over the last 50 years, the legal system has failed to live up to Gideon. Criminal cases have piled up. The Guardian article stated how 53 years on, the rate of incarceration across the country has more than quadrupled compared to 1963 and the vast majority of defendants are indigent. The system is at crisis point. The cornerstone principles of the justice system have been eroded to the breaking point.
In recent years the US has begun to reckon with its role as the world’s biggest jailer. It manifests unequal justice system that disproportionately punishes poor people of color. In diagnosing the causes of this problem much of the focus has centered on sentencing reform. But in a country where 95% of criminal cases are settled by plea deal, little attention has been given to the critical state of indigent defense. Around the US, defenders routinely report an increase in overburdening and underfunding, caused by a variety of structural, political and economic drivers.
The Problem is Nationwide.
How bad is the picture around the country? Frustratingly, the scale of the problem remains unknown as dozens of states and jurisdictions produce no reliable data at all on the condition of their public defense systems.
As the Innocence Project reports, Public Defenders’ caseloads in some US states include about 80 to 100 cases per week. That’s about 400 cases per month or more than 4500 cases per year. That’s an impossible schedule to fulfill, no matter how dedicated legal workers are.
The last nationwide survey of public defender offices was carried out almost 10 years ago by the Department of Justice’s bureau of justice statistics (BJS). The findings were stark: 73% of county-operated defender systems, utilized in 27 states, were functioning above the maximum recommended caseload level.
In the 22 state centralized defender programs, 15 ran on caseload levels that exceeded the recommended case limit. In a world of meagre measurement and inadequate oversight, many argue the findings were a significant underestimate of the nationwide strain on the system.
The underfunding of public defenders threatens very grave consequences for the justice system in Texas and elsewhere. We hear about people who have been charged with minor crimes remaining in jail because they are poor. Harris County Jail in Texas has one of the worst records in this regard. Often public defenders are too busy to give these cases the time they merit.
My opinion? Obviously, cash-poor defendants are falling through the cracks. They are languishing in jails when they should have been released. Or their court-appointed attorney is not giving their cases the time and attention they deserve.
Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.