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Editorial: Public defender system needs an overhaul


August 25. 2013 5:45AM
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In order for justice to work, everyone has to have equal access to the laws and justice system. This is no problem for people who can afford attorneys. For those who can’t, however, justice often takes a backseat.



A recent Associated Press article detailed a depressing litany of problems surrounding the nation’s public defenders who seem to be the epitome of the age-old worker lament: overworked and underpaid.



This problem has been highlighted recently because on March 18, 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that states have an obligation to provide defendants with “the guiding hand of counsel” to ensure a fair trial for the accused. Some people are just too poor to hire an attorney, but before 1963 their right to counsel was nonexistent.



Now that right is included in the Miranda warning that every TV cop utters: “You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one, one will provided at no cost.”



It’s good in theory and absolutely essential in reality. The only way people have to defend themselves when tried for a crime (there is no right to counsel in civil cases) is by that “guiding hand of counsel.”



In practice, however, public defenders are so overloaded with clients that some don’t meet their clients until they both arrive in court.



One Indianapolis attorney resigned after one year because he had 300 clients and just could not provide them all with quality defenses. As another attorney put it: “A lawyer with an S on his chest for Superman couldn’t represent these people.”



Lest Americans think that anyone arrested and turned over to the justice system is bound to be guilty, case after case shows that’s not true. Innocent people go to jail all the time, and sometimes a weak defense is what lands them in jail. Public defenders have such an exhaustive client list that it is impossible to prepare for all of those cases, and that leaves the fate of the defendant literally at the mercy of the court or jury.



Far too many people are arrested for nonviolent crimes — mostly drugs — and clog the court system. Indiana and other states are working on laws to change the criminal code, which would not only alleviate jail overcrowding, but public defender case overload.



That would help, but legislatures might want to look at how to increase the ranks of public defenders and offer them more money. The federal government, The Associated Press points out, provides about zero funds to public defenders. Pay for them comes from the states and counties and, in some states, only the county picks up the tab. We all know how little discretionary funds are available at the local level, so funding those attorneys doesn’t seem to be a priority, especially considering the value of the work they do.



On this 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the work of public defenders cannot be overvalued even if they are decidedly undervalued by the states and counties. The system needs more people and more money and, given this age of austerity, those won’t be easy to come by. But it’s necessary for people, even the poor and indigent, to have the best counsel possible when they find themselves in the justice system.





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