50th Anniversary of Gideon Decision Exposes Continuing Problems in Indigent Defense

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Photo by Jacob Holdt

Today there is widespread recognition that the goal of providing counsel to the nation's poor, stated by the United States Supreme Court fifty years ago in Gideon v. Wainwright, has not been achieved.

In Gideon, the Supreme Court declared it an "obvious truth" that "in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him." The Court has since held that, in addition to indigent defendants facing a felony charge, those charged with misdemeanors who could be jailed, convicted defendants filing a first appeal, and juveniles charged with delinquency all have a constitutional right to counsel.

Yet, in practice, poor people in most jurisdictions continue to confront the full force of the State's prosecutorial resources without adequate -- or any -- counsel to represent them. Only 24 states have public defender systems, and even the best of those are hampered by lack of funding and crippling case loads. Defendants too poor to post bail can spend months in jail waiting for a lawyer to be appointed.

And many poor people charged with misdemeanors appear in court hearings without a lawyer, where they must make the untenable choice of pleading guilty and being released (burdened by fines, court costs, and other collateral consequences of a criminal conviction that they cannot afford) or remaining in jail indefinitely waiting for a lawyer.

The failure to provide adequate counsel to capital defendants and death row prisoners is a defining feature of the American death penalty. Whether a defendant will be sentenced to death typically depends more on the quality of his legal team than any other factor. Most defendants facing capital charges are indigent and get appointed attorneys who are frequently overworked, underpaid, and/or inexperienced in trying death penalty cases. In some cases, lawyers representing defendants in capital trials have slept through parts of trial, shown up in court intoxicated, and failed to do any work at all in preparation for the sentencing phase.

Gideon's promise rings especially hollow in Alabama, the only state in the country without a state-funded program to provide legal assistance to death row prisoners. There is no state-wide public defender program in the state and, in some counties, defendants have been sentenced to death after trials where they were represented by a lawyer who did not meet even the minimum requirement of five years of criminal defense experience. Nearly half of the people on Alabama’s death row were represented at trial by appointed lawyers whose compensation for out-of-court preparation was capped at $1000.

Last year, the Supreme Court decision in Maples v. Alabama criticized Alabama's failure to provide legal assistance to death row inmates, observing that inmates are forced to rely on volunteers and "some prisoners sentenced to death receive no postconviction representation at all."