by Jeremy Leaming
In an effort to bolster the nation's indigent defense system, and criminal justice in general, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy is pushing for reauthorization of a measure enacted in 2003 intended to further those goals.
Leahy introduced legislation this week to reauthorize the Justice for All Act, which he said will help advance a "criminal justice system which keeps us safe, ensures fairness and accuracy, and fulfills the promise of our constitution."
In a press statement about the measure, Leahy notes that beyond reauthorizing several DNA-evidence program grants, it would also require the Department of Justice "to provide technical assistance to state and local governments requesting support to meet their Sixth Amendment obligations, and make it unlawful for any governmental authority to engage in a pattern or practice of conduct that deprives persons of their rights to assistance of counsel as protected by the Sixth Amendment."
Cara H. Drinan, a law professor at Catholic University of America, examined in an ACS Issue Brief the state of indigent defense, concluding that more federal involvement is needed to overcome a "crisis in indigent defense services."
Drinan said that many states are falling far short of their duties to uphold Sixth Amendment rights. In its landmark 1963 opinion, Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court found that states must provide legal representation to criminal defendants who cannot afford attorneys. Drinan notes that in "16 states, more than half of indigent defense costs are paid for by the county; and in two states, Pennsylvania and Utah, there is no state funding at all. These states abdicate their constitutional obligations under Gideon when they require counties to fund indigent defense services."