The Sad State of Indigent Defense Fifty Years After Gideon v. Wainwright
"You have the right to remain silent....You have the right to an attorney...." We all know this refrain, echoed time and time again by cops on TV and cops on our neighborhood streets. But is this promise actually fulfilled for those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer?
In deciding Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963, the Supreme Court held that our Constitution mandates that anyone accused of a felony offense should have guaranteed access to defense counsel to represent them, even if they cannot afford one. This promise was meant to ensure that the poor of our nation have equal access to justice. Fifty years after Gideon, this promise remains woefully unfulfilled. About 80% of criminal defendants in the states cannot afford to hire a lawyer. The public defender systems on which poor people rely are grossly underfunded and staffed by committed, but overworked, lawyers. As a result, many individuals charged with crimes plead guilty in hearings that often last only minutes, after sometimes having just met their attorney.