Public Defenders’ Offices Failing the Indigent, Study Concludes

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According to a study recently conducted by The Constitution Project, a bipartisan group, there are major problems with how the Sixth Amendment—which guarantees legal counsel to indigents and the poor—is being carried out in many U.S. States.

The study, which lasted for over five years and examined every state in the nation, is being hailed as the most in-depth look at public defenders and their clientèle to be conducted in decades.

The concept of legal counsel for the indigent is one that most Americans are familiar with, if only because of the many times they hear Miranda rights being read to a suspect on television cop and legal shows: “You have the right to an attorney present during questioning. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you.”

Yet public defenders are notoriously overworked and underpaid, and this can lead to substandard levels of legal care for those people whose cases are assigned to them. In other instances, the study found, people who can not afford a lawyer simply do not receive legal counsel at all.

The Constitution Project’s National Right to Counsel Committee, which conducted the study, also issued recommendations which will ameliorate the problem, including the implementation of commissions to oversee indigent defense in every state.

Robert Johnson, one of the committee’s co-chairs, says that since American courts rely on an “adversarial system” in which prosecutors and defense lawyers battle it out, the playing fields must be leveled. Too often, he says, the prosecutorial side has all the might, while defendants suffer.

“We’re not just there to convict,” said Johnson, who is a prosecutor and who used to head the National District Attorneys Association. “Our job is to find justice. And I need a person standing with the defendant to help me do that.”

Without adequate legal counsel, poor defendants get a raw deal. Some, like Alan Crotzer, end up paying a huge price—not with money, but with years of their life. Crotzer was wrongly convicted, and spent 24 years of his life in prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence.

“I didn’t have no political connections, but I was innocent,” said Crotzer, who served on the National Right to Counsel Committee. “I was poor and indigent…and because of that fault in me, I spent more than half of my life in prison.”

 

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