Why is the Sixth Amendment so important? Because it ensures that whether it’s you, me, our children, one of our family members or someone we will never know who lives in utter poverty, we cannot be made to face accusations by government about alleged crimes without having a lawyer to represent us regardless of the ability to hire one. In other words, when the power of government is focused upon any one of us we each have, without exception, the right to a lawyer to protect our rights as we move through the vast and complicated legal system.
There are many laws in our country, perhaps too many, but no law is more fundamental to a democracy and our individual freedom than that designed to ensure our right to liberty. This is the reason the Sixth Amendment was written and became one of the basic laws of our country.
Yet today, in far too many states, the right to have an attorney regardless of your financial circumstance is not being upheld. Despite federal and state constitutions and in spite of Supreme Court rulings, too many people accused of a crime are not afforded the right to a trained and competent attorney to represent them.
Ironically, this failure to provide competent lawyers to the poor is actually a public safety issue. Unfair sentencing outcomes, public attorneys lacking sufficient training and without adequate staff, unmanageable caseloads, and improper convictions that too often leave the real perpetrator still on the street, are all consequences of not ensuring everyone has skilled legal representation.
However, the solution is not to simply increase government spending. There are other ways to ensure the constitutional right to counsel as we cut costs that benefit all of us as taxpayers. Increasing cost-effective supervised diversion and treatment programs for low-level, non-violent offenders or re-classifying the sanctions on petty crimes are just two ways.
Today, incarceration costs are a large part of most state and local government budgets. Taxpayers can no longer afford to imprison every minor criminal and then sort it all out through a costly appeal process. That wastes our money and the results are terrible. We need our courts to get it right the first time to decrease the need for endless appeals and costly retrials that force victims to unfairly wait for justice. No one is served by a system of too little justice, delivered too late.
The Sixth Amendment Center (6AC) was founded to assist states and local governments in meeting their constitutional obligation. The 6AC Board of Directors believes that the right to counsel is a non-partisan issue, and an effective defense role in our criminal courts reflects a balanced criminal justice system and sound fiscal policy. Our board comes to this issue from conservative and liberal backgrounds. We are former state Supreme Court justices, law enforcement personnel, and state legislators. We are academicians, constitutional scholars, and mental health experts. Some of us have worked as public defense attorneys while others have been prosecutors. Despite our diverse backgrounds we are united in our commitment to ensuring that everyone gets a fair day in court before their liberty can be taken away by the state.
I encourage you to take a moment to learn more about how our organization facilitates fair, cost-effective and balanced state court systems. Take time to find out more about how the jurisdiction where you live provides for—or more likely fails to uphold—your Sixth Amendment right to counsel. I also encourage you to contact our experienced staff with any questions, comments or concerns.
David Meyer, Board Chair
Sixth Amendment Center