Public defenders see lack of resources, respect: NPR
Sixty years ago today, the Supreme Court ruled that people accused of crimes but unable to afford an attorney would be provided with one at state expense.
The promise of this historic decision in Gideon v. Wainwright has been frustrated by the heavy workload of public defenders and tight budgets that prioritize police, prosecutors and prisons over the right to counsel.
“Understaffed, overwhelming workload, underpaid and undervalued, and it’s a conscious decision our legislatures are making across the country,” said Stan German, executive director of New York County Defender Services, at an event in Washington, DC, this week.
The American legal system is built on the idea that evenly matched adversaries – a prosecutor and a defense attorney – will face off in court, and back and forth will bring out the truth.
But Yasmin Cader, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union and a former public defender, said things don’t work that way most of the time, especially for low-income people.
“The reality is that in criminal courtrooms in this country, we often find ourselves before an assembly line of justice where people are just being processed and rights are not being protected,” Cader said.
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Attorney General Merrick Garland acknowledged those issues this week
Garland – the country’s chief law enforcement officer – said his own mentors had been instrumental in working on or supervising memoirs in the Clarence Gideon case in the early 1960s and a senior partner in the firm of lawyers now known as Arnold & Porter said he was “the most important client” they had ever represented.
“They knew there are few things more meaningful and honorable than applying one’s talent, experience and education to represent another person before the state – no matter what that person is accused of doing. “, said Garland.
Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta notes, “Defending those accused of crimes is not only a good thing to do, it’s a constitutional requirement. This constitutional requirement helps ensure fairness and legitimacy – and for this reason, every actor in the criminal justice system should be invested in the work of public defenders.
The Biden administration is making access to the courts a priority, reestablishing a stand-alone access to justice office and putting Rachel Rossi, a former public defender, in charge.
Over the past few weeks, Rossi and other senior Justice Department officials have traveled across the country to listen to public defenders and learn more about their needs. The DOJ also clarified that state and local governments can tap into a large source of federal grants to pay for public defense.
“Defenders are sometimes the only voice of the voiceless,” Rossi told an audience of public defenders this week. “They seek dignity and humanity for the most vulnerable, and most often without recognition, with little pay and without sufficient resources.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats propose bill to improve retention of public defenders
On Capitol Hill, Sens. Cory Booker, DN.J., and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., on Thursday introduced a bill to create a new source of grants to hire public defenders and boost their pay to try to level the playing field with prosecutors’ salaries.
“The public defense function is under such strain that in too many places it’s barely functioning,” Booker told the Senate.
Recruiting and retaining public defenders has become even more difficult during the coronavirus pandemic. But German, of New York County Defense Services, said he already had to field lawyers’ questions about whether they could stay on the job and afford to buy a house or have children.
Despite all the longstanding concerns about resources and respect, there are encouraging signs, said David Carroll, executive director of the Sixth Amendment Center, a nonprofit group that works to ensure those accused of crimes have a legal representation.
Carroll pointed to moves in states such as Michigan, which is now spending more money on public defense — and creating structures and standards to guide lawyers for low-income people.
“I think the last 10 years have shown that states have come the furthest in understanding their responsibilities,” Carroll said, though he said many states “still have a long way to go.”