Summit Focuses on Improving Indigent Defense
A weekend summit at the ABA Midyear Meeting highlighted challenges facing the indigent defense system around the country.
The ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants – together with a group of co-sponsors – organized the 6th Annual Summit on Indigent Defense Improvement. During an afternoon panel discussion Saturday, panelists focused on Michigan’s challenges in delivering free or low-cost legal services to the poor.
Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly of the Michigan Supreme Court pointed to a 2008 report by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association that found that Michigan’s public defense system was one of the worst in the country. Problems identified in the report include instances of defense counsel first meeting with clients on the eve of trial and lawyers being appointed to cases that they’re not qualified to handle, she said.
“We should find this situation appalling and intolerable,” Kelly said. “When we fail a fellow citizen accused of a crime, we also fail the Constitution.”
When defendants aren’t properly represented, “the likely result is that we have people in prison who simply don’t belong there, and whose incarceration is a burden for tax payers,” Kelly said.
Michigan isn’t alone. Norman Lefstein from Indiana University School of Law highlighted the results of another report, Justice Denied: America’s Continuing Neglect of our Constitutional Right to Counsel. He said the report makes the case very effectively that “the problems of indigent defense are nationwide problems. And while there is enormous variability in the delivery of defense services throughout the country, the problems are genuinely pervasive.”
Lack of funding is a major issue, and “perhaps the greatest manifestation of inadequate funding is the problem of caseloads,” Lefstein said. The ABA has created guidelines for public defenders (PDF) related to excessive caseloads and also has issued a legal ethics opinion (PDF) for lawyers who represent indigent criminal defendants and face overwhelming caseloads.
Earlier in the day, Barry Scheck, co-founder and co-director of The Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, also stressed the need for better funding the indigent defense system. He advocated for creating an office of public counsel within the U.S. Department of Justice. That office would represent the needs of the national indigent defense system, coordinate with other DOJ programs and be positioned to push for federal funding.