We all know this refrain, echoed time and time again by cops on TV and cops on our neighborhood streets. But is this promise actually fulfilled for those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer?
In deciding Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963, the Supreme Court held that our Constitution mandates that anyone accused of a felony offense should have guaranteed access to defense counsel to represent them, even if they cannot afford one. This promise was meant to ensure that the poor of our nation have equal access to justice. Fifty years after Gideon, this promise remains woefully unfulfilled. About 80% of criminal defendants in the states cannot afford to hire a lawyer. The public defender systems on which poor people rely are grossly underfunded and staffed by committed, but overworked, lawyers. As a result, many individuals charged with crimes plead guilty in hearings that often last only minutes, after sometimes having just met their attorney.
Our criminal justice system needs to do better. Over the next year, the ACLU will share stories that illustrate the state of indigent defense 50 years after Gideon. We hope that these real-world accounts will motivate us to re-examine our constitutional duty to provide zealous, competent, and well-resourced advocates for those accused of a crime.
We all know the Hollywood version. Bookmark this page and check back throughout the year for the real story.