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50 Years After Gideon, 5 Problems Facing Public Defenders

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By Tanya Roth, Esq. on March 19, 2013 2:26 PM

Criminal defendants have the right to counsel, even if they can't afford one. That's a staple in the law. And it was solidified even further 50 years ago in the landmark decision Gideon v. Wainwright.

On March 18, 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court held that states must provide a court-appointed attorney for a criminal defendant who's charged with a serious offense, if the defendant lacks the resources to hire his own attorney.

But the post-Gideon road hasn't been an easy one. There are still many problems facing public defenders and the clients they represent. Here are five of the most pressing:

  1. Not everyone is eligible. Eligibility for a public defender is typically determined through a showing of financial need, usually by producing financial documents.

  2. Court-appointed counsel may not be as effective. Perhaps one of the biggest problems with the institution of public defenders is the quality of representation. While public defenders include some of the best and brightest law graduates, the limited resources available to the defenders (see below) make it tough for many to give the best and most effective legal counsel.

  3. Funding constraints. Funding is a huge issue for public defenders nationwide. In some states, funding for public attorneys comes from local county governments, reports The Associated Press. And these days, many counties are strapped for cash. Some public defender offices are even shunning some cases due to lack of manpower and resources. So in a post-Gideon world, what good is a decree if it can't be followed through?

  4. Questionable independence of counsel. In some states, public defenders report to elected officials. Where's the independence in that arrangement? Are the public defenders really acting in an impartial and unbiased manner, or are they furthering the interests of their employers?

  5. Lack of standards. This comes back to the earlier idea that there is a lack of quality representation in some cases. According to the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, not all states have clear standards. As a result, the public defender system may be great in one county, but entirely different in another county.

In the 50 years since Gideon, the law might have been strengthened with regard to public defenders, but it's hard to say if the overall situation has really changed, as a law professor recently opined in The New York Times. While court administrators and lawmakers have made some efforts to address the lack of funding for public defenders, it's still hard to say whether these efforts will prove fruitful.

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