by Jeremy Leaming
It’s been 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that criminal defendants have a constitutional right to counsel even if they cannot afford it. But too many states have not lived up to their constitutional obligation of ensuring that indigent defendants have counsel, helping lead to mass incarceration.
A new report from the Brennan Center For Justice explains that the states’ woefully ineffective handling of indigent defense cases has led to mass incarceration that is far more costly than providing adequate counsel to poor defendants. The report also provides suggestions for reforming the system.
In Gideon at 50: Three Reforms to Revive the Right to Counsel it is noted that at the time the high court down Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963 there were about 217,000 people in prison. “Today, the incarcerated population has expanded to approximately 2.3 million people. The United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prison population. One in four American adults now has been convicted of a crime. We live in an era of mass incarceration,” the report states.
If Gideon’s promise were being met, then it is likely the country could more easily overcome the crisis of mass imprisonment.
“Our poorly funded public defense system exacerbates our nation’s mass incarceration problem,” the Brennan report continues. “Rarely does the accused have adequate legal representation. Rarely is their fight balanced. Rarely do public defenders have the resources they need to keep Gideon’s promise of providing a constitutional right to effective counsel.”
The report makes a strong case that it would be a far more effective use of public dollars to help ensure indigent defendants have competent, adequate counsel instead of continuing to support a mass incarceration system that is incredibly costly and harmful to minority communities.
First, the report notes that mass imprisonment largely targets minority communities. “African-American and Hispanics, who make up less than 30 percent of the country’s population, are nearly 60 percent of the prison population. Whites, with 64 percent of the general population, make up approximately 35 percent of the prison population.”