DOJ selects the Sixth Amendment Center & Seattle University School of Law to respond to nation’s indigent defense “crisis”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
BOSTON, Massachusetts (October 1, 2013) — The Sixth Amendment Center and the Defender Initiative at Seattle University School of Law have been awarded a $450,000 grant from the United States Department of Justice to continue their efforts to respond to the crisis in the public defense system.
DOJ announced a two-year grant to the two organizations in its program entitled Answering Gideon’s Call: National Assistance To Improve the Effectiveness of Right to Counsel Services. The grant is designed to improve the quality of state-level public defense services in the United States consistent with the American Bar Association’s Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System. The Ten Principles detail the broad structures and policies that are critical to any healthy, minimally functioning indigent defense system, including systemic safeguards to ensure that judges do not unduly influence the defense, courts appoint attorneys early enough in the case to be effective, and attorneys’ workloads are controlled to ensure they have the time to be effective.
Attorney General Eric Holder called the ABA Ten Principles the “basic building blocks of a well-functioning public defense system.” He has concluded that the country’s public defense systems still exist in a “state of crisis,” 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared it an “obvious truth” that poor people facing a loss of liberty in a criminal proceeding cannot receive a fair trial unless a lawyer is provided to them.
With an East Coast and West Coast presence, the 6AC/SUSL partnership is uniquely situated to respond quickly to struggling jurisdictions to provide timely technical assistance in identifying and rectifying issues that prevent a poor person from receiving a constitutionally adequate defense. Over the two-year grant cycle, the partners will provide technical assistance to a number of jurisdictions, including evaluating the health of the indigent defense systems in Utah and Mississippi.
In criminal courtrooms across America, poor people find themselves among dozens or even hundreds of defendants all vying for the attention of a single defender all at the same time. Too often, the attorney appointed to represent them is unqualified, untrained, financially conflicted and beholden to the judge presiding in the case.
“When an innocent person is sent to prison because the lawyer lacks the time, training and resources to properly investigate the case,” said 6AC executive director David Carroll, “the true perpetrator of the crime is left to wreak havoc on public safety.”
This situation is intensified by the fact that tens of thousands of poor people are sent to jail every year without ever having spoken to a lawyer, a particular interest to the Defender Initiative at SUSL.
“Hundreds of thousands of people each year plead guilty without ever talking with a lawyer,” said Bob Boruchowitz of the SUSL Defender Initiative. “Many courts accept guilty pleas from people who do not understand that they could have a lawyer to help them negotiate a resolution of their case and advise them whether the prosecution’s offer makes sense. Often defendants are encouraged to talk with the prosecutor about their case without ever having the advice of a defender. Even innocent people can be intimidated into pleading guilty to something they did not do.”
“Tens of thousands of people are incarcerated every year without ever having spoken to a lawyer,” said Carroll, adding that, “although such ‘no counsel courts’ generally occur in the nation’s misdemeanors courts, the consequences of even minor convictions can be great on both the defendant and the overall criminal justice system.”
Utah and Mississippi are among only seven states that do not contribute any money for non-capital, trial-level right to counsel services (Arizona, California, Idaho, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota are the others). Although a state may delegate constitutional responsibilities to local government, a state must guarantee that local governments are not only able to provide such services but that they are in fact doing so. None of these states currently have such mechanisms for evaluating the effectiveness of their county-based public defense systems.
“Taxpayers can no longer afford to imprison every minor criminal and then sort it all out through a costly appeal process,” Carroll stated. “We need effective public defense systems to prevent the need for costly retrials that force victims and defendants to unfairly wait for justice.”
Boruchowitz concurred, saying: “If a case is important enough to prosecute, it is important enough to defend. Defenders need the resources and training to represent the millions of accused people across the country.”
The Sixth Amendment Center (6AC) is a Massachusetts-based nonprofit 501(c)3 organization that seeks to ensure that no person faces potential time in jail without first having the aid of a lawyer with the time, ability and resources to present an effective defense, as required under the United States Constitution. We do so by measuring public defense systems against established standards of justice. When shortcomings are identified, we help states and counties make their courts fair again in ways that promote public safety and fiscal responsibility.
The Defender Initiative is an unusual law school-based project aimed at providing better representation for people accused of crimes and facing loss of their liberty in juvenile and other court proceedings and in the process increase fairness in and respect for the courts. The Initiative is part of the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality, whose mission is to advance justice and equality through a unified vision that combines research, advocacy, and education. The project works to improve public defense representation for thousands of people in Washington and provide models for application in other states. It has worked in Kentucky, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Idaho in partnership with national and local organizations.