Pleading the Sixth: I am honored to have the work of the Sixth Amendment Center (6AC) featured by POLITICO and The Marshall Project. At a time when American political discourse is too much defined by opposing factions standing on soapboxes yelling at each other, the 6AC stands apart. We bring unlikely allies together to overcome the deficiencies that result in two separate and unequal criminal justice systems — one for the well off, and another for everyone else.
For the past twenty years I have travelled all across the nation studying local criminal justice systems and, specifically, how states and localities provide the constitutionally-required right to a lawyer to poor people who face potential incarceration. These experiences are what caused me to found the Sixth Amendment Center. As our name denotes, we have a singular purpose: ensuring that the right to counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution is carried out in every courtroom in America.
As powerful as our Constitution is, it quickly becomes ineffective if we do not ensure that its promises are met. The purpose of the Bill of Rights is to protect the rights of individual people against the tyranny of government. Yet, the rights to speak freely, or to join others in protest, or to practice one’s faith unimpeded, among others, are individual rights that can only be enjoyed by those who first have the ability to defend their life and liberty. The Sixth Amendment gives to the poor the same necessary tool already available to the more affluent – an effective lawyer – to defend his liberty against government when it over-reaches.
Here at the Sixth Amendment Center, we know that all those involved in criminal justice desire to uphold the Constitution, without regard to personal politics. That is why our main work is to assist states in ensuring that they and their localities are effectively providing the right to counsel. Far too many states today lack the capacity to do so without assistance. We do this through three primary means:
- We make freely and publicly available our extensive on-going research on how each of the states and territories carry out the right to counsel today, enabling policymakers and regular folks alike to understand their own systems and to learn from what works (or doesn’t work) in other jurisdictions;
- Where needed to help determine whether and how a state, county, or court is meeting or failing the requirements of the Sixth Amendment, we objectively evaluate the system used to provide the right to counsel against U.S. Supreme Court case law and national standards; and
- We assist policymakers at all levels as they determine how best to build indigent defense systems that are tailored to the uniqueness of their own state and that uphold our Constitutional guarantee of the effective assistance of counsel.
There are no shortcuts to this work. States have neglected their constitutional obligations for more than 50 years, and it takes time to build out criminal justice systems that are efficient, effective, and that ensure equal access to justice to all – rich or poor. But we know how to help.
In this age of political divisiveness, where quick fixes are so appealing, it is difficult to secure funding for work that requires a commitment of years. If you like what you have read about 6AC and our work, please donate to help us fulfill the promise of our Constitution.