Three Reform Measures to Revive the Right to Counsel
Date:  04-10-2013

New Brennan Center report examines challenges faced by public defenders and offers remedies to eliminate stumbling blocks
The Brennan Center for Justice (BCJ) has issued a new report, Gideon at 50: Three Reforms to Revive the Right to Counsel, that offers three reform measures that can be implemented to insure that low-income clients receive legal representation if they cannot afford it. Reentry Central has covered the plight of over-worked public defenders who struggle to provide the best representation for their clients with staggering caseloads and limited resources. Despite these challenges public defenders have been recognized for fighting diligently to assure that their clients receive justice (see Public Defenders Versus Appointed Attorneys: Who Comes Out on Top? Reentry Central, February 25, 2013). But the battle is an uphill one. The BCJ executive summary of Gideon at 50: Three Reforms to Revive the Right to Counsel reveals why the struggle is so difficult:

  • According to the American Bar Association (ABA), researchers estimate that anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of criminal defendants need publicly-funded attorneys, depending on the jurisdiction. Yet most public defenders are unable to meet this demand due, in part, to the deluge of low-level charges and misdemeanor cases.

  • Prosecutors often bring charges against defendants that are far higher than warranted by the facts of the case, and defenders often do not have time or resources to assertively negotiate with prosecutors in plea discussions. Defendants are then left to accept unfair plea deals rather than risk trials that may leave them behind bars for even longer.

  • The routine denial of effective legal representation for poor defendants, coupled with the over-criminalization of petty offenses, feed our mass incarceration problem at great social and economic costs.

  • Reports estimate that taxpayers spend $79 billion a year on corrections nationwide, with an average of $31,286 per state prisoner.

    To remedy the situation the report’s authors,Thomas Giovanni and Roopal Patel recommend the following three “common sense solutions to move the country toward a more functional and fair system of public defense.”

  • Determine which petty offenses can be safely reclassified into non-jailable civil infractions, or legalized.

  • Increase funding for public defense from likely and unlikely sources.

  • Increase effectiveness of public defense by funding regular trainings for attorneys and adding social workers.
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