Gideon Remains Unfulfilled
The landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision Gideon v. Wainwright, which established the constitutional right to counsel in state criminal proceedings, caused the most significant transformation in American criminal justice history: recognition that every defendant, whether wealthy or poor, is guaranteed the right to a lawyer. At its core, Gideon is the promise of justice for even the most vulnerable citizens in our society. Yet more than 40 years after the Gideon decision, the American justice system still is failing to protect the rights and liberty of the nation’s poorest defendants by not providing properly trained and prepared defense counsel—a failing that largely stems from inadequate funding of indigent defense systems nationwide.
Why are these failings so pervasive? And what is the price paid by our country—one that is founded on the principles of equality for all under the law—when fundamental, constitutionally guaranteed legal protections are denied to our fellow Americans?
A new report by the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, “Gideon’s Broken Promise: America’s Continuing Quest for Equal Justice,” found that the price paid by many poor defendants can be steep—wrongful conviction. It notes that in recent years the mounting evidence of wrongful convictions proves that the phenomenon is much more common than once believed, with one study putting the number potentially as high as 10,000 annually nationwide. While there are many reasons why innocent people are convicted, the best defense against wrongful convictions is effective, well-trained defense lawyers.
In his State of the Union address, President Bush noted the importance of all Americans’ confidence in the justice system and announced plans for expanding the use of DNA evidence to prevent wrongful conviction, as well as a proposal to fund special training for defense counsel in capital cases. His recognition of these critical issues is commendable. But as the ABA report makes clear, effective defense is inextricably linked to adequate funding of defense systems across the country, not only in providing special training in a specific area.
The report is the culmination of a series of four hearings at which expert witnesses gave testimony reflecting indigent defense in 22 states. It reveals a system mired in crisis. Without exception, witnesses representing all 22 states reported grave inadequacies in the available funds and resources for indigent defense. These conditions, coupled with continued lack of public awareness, result in the routine denial of justice to many of the poorest people throughout the United States. This crisis affects much more than the individual defendant: the integrity of our entire criminal justice system suffers when equal access to justice for all Americans is but an ideal and not a reality.
Crisis by definition represents a crucial turning point—an unstoppable moment that demands decisive action. And make no mistake: we are in crisis today. The sad state of indigent defense is a call to our country: state lawmakers must increase funding for indigent defense, to a level that ensures uniform, quality legal representation. But it is also a call to those who practice and administer the law, and those of us whose lives are ordered by its fair administration, to become actively involved in efforts to reform indigent defense systems.
Chief Justice Earl Warren said that it is the spirit and not the form of the law that keeps justice alive. We owe it to our fellow citizens to fulfill Gideon’s promise for all.