Indigent Defense

  • June 18, 2013
    Guest Post

    by G. Ben Cohen. Mr. Cohen is OF COUNSEL at The Capital Appeals Project. Cohen was VISITING LITIGATION COUNSEL at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute in 2011.

    On April 29, 2013, after briefing and oral argument on whether the State’s failure to fund counsel for a defendant should be weighed against the state for speedy trial purposes, five Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court turned a blind eye in Boyer v. Louisiana to the funding crisis in Louisiana’s public defender system and declined to address the seven year wait between Jonathan Boyer’s arrest and trial. On Boyer’s heels comes another case underscoring the unconscionable harms of the Bayou State’s decimated criminal justice system – which has depended on traffic tickets to fund the defense function.

    On June 20, 2013 the Supreme Court will decide whether to grant certiorari in Michael Garcia v. Louisiana.  The public defender office could not afford to adequately provide separate capital representation to Mr. Garcia and his two co-defendants.  By law, however, the Public Defender could not represent all three defendants himself.  Even the prosecutor informed the trial court at Mr. Garcia’s very first hearing that the multiple representation might pose a conflict of interest, but the judge left the Public Defender to work it out. 

    The Public Defender assigned all the capitally-certified attorneys from his office, including himself, to represent Mr. Garcia, and assigned lawyers who were not certified to represent defendants facing the death penalty to represent the two co-defendants. This refusal to hire outside counsel saved the public defender office from going bankrupt.  It also prevented the state from seeking death against the two other defendants.  But it meant that Mr. Garcia’s lawyer chose him as the only defendant against whom the State could seek the death penalty.

  • May 3, 2013

    by E. Sebastian Arduengo

    Last month, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D–Vt.) reintroduced the Gideon’s Promise Act of 2013 to address the problems plaguing the indigent defense system which have left the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright increasingly hollow for the poorest people in our society. The act would require states to use existing federal funds to improve the administration of criminal justice in a comprehensive, strategic way, and to collaborate with the Department of Justice and local authorities to devise a plan for adequately addressing indigent defense needs. If states refuse to comply then the Department of Jusice would have the power to take them to court to make sure that they are meeting their constitutional obligations.

    But Leahy’s bill doesn’t go nearly far enough to address budget-related failings in our criminal justice system. With sequestration at the federal level, and years of budget cutbacks at the state level, we’re now to the point where years of political indifference to funding the judicial branch has affected the basic operation of the courts and the services that we expect them to provide.

    This is a crisis that’s reached such endemic proportions that Chief Justice John Roberts made it a focus of last year’s state of the judiciary report, where he made the case that the federal courts were already being as cost-effective as they could possibly be, and warned that “significant and prolonged shortfall[s] in judicial funding would inevitably result in the delay or denial of justice for the people the courts serve.”

    That scenario is already playing out in state and local courts across the country.

    The effect of over a billion dollars of cuts in the last four years has been nothing short of devastating to the Los Angeles Superior Court system. Court officials plan to shutter a dozen courthouses and make an indeterminate number of staff layoffs. The only thing these courthouses will be used for now is for collecting traffic fines and administrative functions. The actual business of dispensing justice will be triaged at the remaining courthouses in the county, “where certain types of cases are heard at each remaining courthouse.”

  • April 23, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Vincent Imhoff, Managing Partner, Imhoff & Associates, P.C.

    Clarence Earl Gideon was about 50-years old when he was arrested in relation to the theft of money and wine from a pool hall in Panama City, Fla., in 1961. Gideon’s father had died when he was young, and Gideon himself quit school after eighth grade, running away from home and becoming a drifter. By the time Gideon was 16 he already had a criminal record, one that would follow him up until that fateful day when he was arrested, tried, and convicted of breaking and entering with intent to commit petty larceny. Gideon was too poor to pay for any type of defense in the case, and back in 1961 in Bay County, Fla., that meant you had to defend yourself against even the toughest prosecuting attorneys unless you were convicted of a capital offense. So it was that the Gideon’s judge denied him access to a lawyer, Gideon defended himself, lost, and was sentenced to the maximum prison term of one year.

    While serving his time, Gideon learned a little bit about law and wrote a 5-page letter to the Supreme Court about how his right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment had been violated. The Supreme Court eventually decided to take his case, and, under the argument that “you cannot have a fair trial without counsel,” ruled in Gideon’s favor. The landmark case, Gideon v. Wainwright, set precedent that states had to provide counsel for criminal defendants who could not afford counsel, essentially owing to the eventual segment of the Miranda Rights that basically read “if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.” After a retrial, Gideon was set free, and the legal landscape of the United States of America was changed.

  • April 9, 2013

    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.”

  • March 25, 2013


    by E. Sebastian Arduengo

    Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Anthony Lewis died this morning. His journalistic career began in the 1950’s and spanned some of the most tumultuous events in American history after the Second World War.

    In additional to his accolades as a reporter, Lewis was also a noted First Amendment scholar, authoring two books on the subject and holding the James Madison chair on First Amendment issues at Columbia University since 1982. His work made him a leading voice in the promotion of freedom of the press, and he was often critical of the simplistic assertions of leading politicians, like Ronald Reagan’s denunciation of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” But, people in the era of YouTube might know him better from the movies derived from his incredible reporting.