Saturday, February 12, 2005
Taken from an ABA press release: A new report released today by the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants finds that 40 years after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, which established the constitutional right to counsel in state criminal proceedings, the American legal system still fails to protect the rights of the nation’s poorest defendants by not providing properly trained and prepared defense counsel. These failings largely stem from inadequate funding of indigent defense systems nationwide, and result in the risk of wrongful convictions. The report, “Gideon’s Broken Promise: America’s Continuing Quest for Equal Justice,” comes on the heels of President Bush’s State of the Union address, in which he 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. But as the ABA report makes clear, effective defense is linked to adequate funding of complete defense systems, not only in providing special training in a specific area.
The report culminates a year-long series of public hearings to examine whether the promise of the Gideon decision is being met. It has not been approved by the ABA’s policy-making House of Delegates, and its recommendations do not represent official policy of the association unless otherwise stated in the report. “Forty years after the Gideon decision, indigent defense in the United States is mired in a state of crisis,” said Bill Whitehurst, chair of the Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants. “After holding year-long hearings in 2003 involving witnesses from 22 states, and then analyzing the extensive testimony we collected, we are troubled to find that nationwide most indigent defense systems are woefully inadequate. This is primarily due to a lack of resources, training, and overwhelming case loads. For poor people, this means they are at constant risk of being wrongfully convicted.” The report notes that in recent years 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 such miscarriages of justice is effective, well-trained defense lawyers.
In addition to its extensive findings, the report makes a number of recommendations on how the country can improve its indigent defense systems. Chief among the recommendations is the call for states to increase funding for indigent defense to a level that ensures uniform quality legal representation, and for the federal government to financially support the provision of indigent defense services in state courts as well. “Effective defense is inextricably linked to adequate funding,” said Whitehurst. “Without exception, witnesses from each of the 22 states examined in these hearings reported grave inadequacies in the available funds and resources for indigent defense.”
The report finds that:
* Lawyers who provide representation in indigent defense systems sometimes are unable to furnish competent representation because they lack the necessary training, funding, time and other resources;
* Too often lawyers are not provided to defendants in proceedings in which a right to counsel exists. Prosecutors often seek to obtain waivers of counsel and guilty pleas from accused people without representation, while judges accept and on occasion encourage waivers of counsel that are not knowing, voluntary, intelligent, and on the record;
* Indigent defense systems often lack basic oversight and accountability;
* Reform efforts have been most successful when they represent a broad spectrum of approaches, services and interests;
* Model approaches to providing indigent defense services do exist in the United States, but they often are not adequately funded and are difficult to duplicate without substantial financial support.
To obtain the report, click here. [Mark Godsey]