Priced out of justice

By Michelle Chen Apr 15, 2009

If you’re accused of a crime, you have a right to a competent lawyer. That’s what the Constitution says, anyway. The Sixth Amendment plays out differently when you’re standing before a judge and your court-appointed counsel is dozing off beside you. The Constitution Project’s new report of the country’s indigent defense systems paints a bleak portrait of how the poor are routinely shut out of the most basic resources for legal representation. According to the Project, public defenders in many communities are crippled by threadbare budgets and staff shortages. Heavy caseloads, huge delays in the legal process, political conflicts of interest, and poorly trained attorneys all further narrow access to justice. The indigent defense crisis is especially critical in communities of color, where economic barriers could leave the accused with no options for legal defense other than what the government foists upon them. For young people ensnared in the courts, a delinquency proceeding with an incompetent lawyer could set off a dismal spiral in the criminal justice system that follows them to adulthood. Chronic underfunding has led to imbalances between the prosecution and defense when building a legal case, rendering many poor people and people of color more vulnerable to wrongful conviction. In New Orleans, for instance, prosecutors outnumber public defenders by a factor of about three to one. In congressional testimony last month, ACLU attorney Robin Dahlenberg recounted the case of Eddie Joe Lloyd to illustrate the ultimate toll of public disinvestment in indigent defense:

His trial attorney, appointed eight days before the commencement of trial, failed to question the details of the police investigation, called no witnesses and gave a five-minute closing argument. Mr. Lloyd spent 17 years behind bars. Michigan taxpayers paid $510,000 for Mr. Lloyd’s unnecessary imprisonment, $2,000 for appellate public defender services, $4,000,000 to settle a wrongful conviction lawsuit and unknown amounts for prosecutors and law enforcement officials to defend his conviction on appeal and for appellate courts to adjudicate the case.

The Constitution Project and other organizations have presented various recommendations for revamping indigent defense programs, including funding reforms, tighter standards for services, and stronger oversight. Yet all of those fixes derive from the simple words of the Sixth Amendment, enshrined centuries ago, guaranteeing “the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” The institutions that condemn the poor to legal hell sure seem to have a lot of trouble following the law themselves. Image: Eddie Joe Lloyd (AP)