“...an estimated 80% of felony defendants in large states are too poor to hire their own lawyers.” - The New York Times, March 15, 2010
IN 1963 THE SUPREME COURT decided the landmark case Gideon vs. Wainwright. The holding was simple: in felony cases people who cannot afford a lawyer must be provided one. Most states responded to the ruling by creating offices for public defenders to defend poor people charged with serious crimes. But Gideon’s promise has not been fulfilled. Too many public defenders have become little more than speed bumps on an indigent’s journey to conviction.
“At the start of 2008, our country had over 2 million people locked up, followed only by China with 1.5 million persons behind bars. America incarcerates more people now than at any other time in our history; one person out of every 100 is in jail or prison.” - The Pew Center on the States, One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008
Most concerning is this: Every year hundreds of innocent indigents are swept away in the crushing tide of a system strained to the breaking point. As it stands today, innocents may spend decades in jail, some who are guilty are not brought to justice, and the public is rapidly losing faith in the fairness and competency of the criminal justice system. While the moral implications are staggering, this travesty of justice occurs against the backdrop of an unprecedented economic climate where an economically strapped nation can ill afford to spend needless dollars imprisoning the innocent.
The problem is particularly acute in the South. Newly minted lawyers fresh out of school are handed case files and a few words of encouragement and then most are left to fend for themselves. With little or no training, some make their way, but many do not. Low pay, long hours, and an endless parade of clients can overwhelm even the most idealistic practitioner over time. Gideon's Army introduces three committed public defenders, Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick, who are attempting to provide high quality representation despite overwhelming caseloads and virtually no resources. But their stories are the norm, not the exception.
“Public defense caseloads frequently far exceed national standards. For example, national standards limit felony cases to 150 a year per attorney. Yet felony caseloads of 500, 600, 800 or more are common.” - National Legal Aid and Defender Association, Five Problems Facing Public Defense
In addition to these professional challenges, low salaries and high student loan debt cause a high degree of stress to them and other public defenders. According to the US Department of Justice, “student loan debt is consistently sited as the overwhelming reason why attorneys decline or leave positions as prosecutors and public defenders.” Many drop out of the system altogether, joining their counterparts with more resources and higher salaries at commercial law firms.
And the stakes are incredibly high. Defendants in the South face some of the steepest potential sentences in the country. The Institute for Southern Studies explains in Doing time in the South that “tough on crime” criminal justice policies like mandatory minimum sentences and "three strikes you're out" laws enacted in the 1980s and 1990s have led to a quadrupling of the country's prison population since 1980, with the South accounting for nearly half of that increase.
This combination of severely under-resourced public defenders, with some of the most punitive laws in the nation, has led Southern Public Defender Training Center founder Jonathan Rapping to call the situation in the Deep South “the civil rights issue of our time.”
“...we must address that there is a crisis within our nation's system of indigent defense...” - Attorney General Eric Holder at the 2009 American Bar Association Convention, August 3, 2009
The landmark Supreme Court case Gideon vs. Wainwright will have its 50th Anniversary in March 2013. The team behind Gideon’s Army is launching a national community engagement campaign timed to coincide with the Anniversary, and in partnership with stakeholders in the indigent defense field. With major funding support from the Ford Foundation, we will collaborate with SpitFire Strategies, The New Press, the Southern Public Defender Training Center, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and others. There might be no better time to increase public awareness around our nation's crisis in indigent defense, and drive citizens to take action in support of our constitutionally protected right to counsel.