Indigent Defense

Indigent Defense

The Sixth Amendment guarantees every person accused of a crime the right to an attorney for his or her defense, regardless of ability to pay, and the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees all citizens equal rights regardless of race or national origin. Yet all too often, these rights are violated by indigent defense systems that leave low-income people, including many people of color, without adequate representation.

March 18, 2013 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright. When he was arrested for stealing $55 dollars and a few bottles of wine – an act which it was later proven he did not commit – Clarence Gideon had $25 to his name. Without the means to hire a lawyer, Mr. Gideon was forced to defend himself. He lost. Languishing behind bars for two years following his conviction, it became clear to him that the U.S. Constitution demands more – that dire poverty should never stack the odds against someone, and that everyone in this country is entitled to a fair trial and counsel to represent them. In ultimately deciding in Mr. Gideon’s favor, the U.S. Supreme Court promised that an attorney would be appointed to represent you in felony proceedings if you are too poor to afford one.

When the ACLU wrote an amicus brief in support of Clarence Earl Gideon in 1963, we did so because we recognized that failing to provide the indigent with access to a defense unfairly tips the scales of justice against the poor. Shockingly, all too often in 2013, a poor person accused of a crime still fails to receive an adequate defense. This is deeply unfair and un-American, and we need to do better. Check out our year-long series on the people impacted by our failure to fulfill the promise laid out in Gideon v. Wainwright.


Michigan’s Crumbling Public Defense System Continues to Lock Up Innocent People (2011 blog)

Illustrates how Michigan's public defense system is often unable to effectively represent its clients and how, despite constitutional guarantees, a court hearing does not ensure a fair or just decision. Too often, innocent people go to jail, or those who have broken the law receive sentences that are harsher than the facts of their crime warrant.

Faces of Failing Defense Systems: Portraits of Michigan's Constitutional Crisis (2011 feature)

Although the constitutional obligation to provide the indigent with defense counsel rests with the states, Michigan long ago delegated that responsibility to its 83 counties and then turned its back. Without state oversight, most counties never provided their public defense attorneys with the tools they needed to do their jobs. These deficiencies were never remedied. Today, the overwhelming majority of Michigan’s public defense systems are seriously under-funded and poorly administered.

Coalition Letter to Senate Leadership and Appropriatons Committee Urging Oppostion to the Oppose the “Lummis Amendment" in H.R. 1 (2011 resource)
House Democrats Vote to Strengthen Legal Services for the Poor (blog 2010)
Duncan et al. v. Granholm - State Supreme Court Order (2010 resource)
Duncan et al. v. Granholm (2010 case)
Duncan et al. v. Granholm - Case Profiles (2009 case)
Equal Access to Justice for the Poor (2009 blog)

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