Over the past decade media coverage of the problems surrounding indigent defense has been increasing. For example, The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is currently suing the state of Utah for failing to uphold that 6th Amendment which now provides opportunities for government provided criminal defense. The ACLU is claiming that Utah fell short of its obligation to provide attorneys to criminal defendants who cannot afford to hire one. While the merits of the case have yet to be properly sorted out, what is true is that public defenders offices are under much needed scrutiny.
With the 50th anniversary of the 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright decision back in 2013 a flurry of articles were published that highlighted some of the injustices in the public defense system that the Gideon verdict created. The Gideon verdict required states to provide defense attorneys, especially for the poor.
In 2013, a New York Times article by Lincoln Caplan on the anniversary of the Gideon decision summarized several of current problems around the United States regarding public defense. The article highlighted the problems with meeting the requirements of Gideon at the state level where 95 percent of America’s criminal trials take place. The best programs in the United States still struggle to meet the high number of cases that require public defenders. Caplan’s article highlights the Miami public defender’s office which handles far above the American Bar Association’s recommendation of 150 cases per year for a attorney. The demand in Miami has reached 500 cases a year, and has far outpaced the funding for indigent defense. The important distinction the author makes in this article is that not only is financing of public defense an issue, but the general attitude towards the poor the system has created. It is an attitude that Caplan and others describe as “contempt.”
A 2011 report published by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) found that, “Florida’s county courts are consistently sacrificing due process for case-processing speed.” The study found that 66 percent of defendants in Florida appeared at arraignment without counsel. Most of these defendants were pleading guilty (70 percent), while those who had hired counsel were less likely to be entering pleas of guilty. Only 21 percent had been appointed public counsel at their first appearance in court. The defendants were often handed documents that encouraged them to waive their right to counsel and enter guilty pleas or no contest. The study found that, “Half of the individuals who appeared at arraignment without counsel wholly waived their right to counsel.” Defendants that were in custody were 10 times more likely to waive their right to counsel. Those accused of less serious crimes were more likely to waive their right as well. In Florida, public defenders are not free, and defendants are often reminded of this before arraignment, which also may lead to the high rates of defendants refusing counsel. If the Florida system is actually encouraging defendants to plead guilty and forgo their right to counsel than it does not fully provide justice for those poor persons arrested.
Ultimately, this is an issue of how we view the poor. If we believe that the poor, regardless of their allege crimes, are worthy of dignity, we should whatever is necessary to see that rule of law is applied in an impartial manner. Otherwise, the poor remain vulnerable to the abuses of the state.