In 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon was charged with breaking and entering a pool hall in Panama City, FL and stealing money from the hall’s vending machines. Gideon could not afford a lawyer so he requested that an attorney be appointed to him. His request was denied because he was not facing the death penalty, and he was sentenced to five years in prison. In 1963, the US Supreme Court reversed his conviction, holding that defense counsel is “fundamental and essential” to a fair trial. 50 years later, a NY Times editorial examines whether this mandate is being met.
While the constitutional commitment is generally met in federal courts, it is a different story in state courts, which handle about 95 percent of America’s criminal cases. This matters because, by well-informed estimates, at least 80 percent of state criminal defendants cannot afford to pay for lawyers and have to depend on court-appointed counsel.
Even the best-run state programs lack enough money to provide competent lawyers for all indigent defendants who need them. Florida set up public defender offices when Gideon was decided, and the Miami office was a standout. But as demand has outpaced financing, caseloads for Miami defenders have grown to 500 felonies a year, though the American Bar Association guidelines say caseloads should not exceed 150 felonies.
Only 24 states have statewide public defender systems. Others flout their constitutional obligations by pushing the problem onto cash-strapped counties or local judicial districts.
Lack of financing isn’t the only problem, either. Contempt for poor defendants is too often the norm. In Kentucky, 68 percent of poor people accused of misdemeanors appear in court hearings without lawyers. In 21 counties in Florida in 2010, 70 percent of misdemeanor defendants pleaded guilty or no contest — at arraignments that averaged less than three minutes.
Read the entire editorial by the New York Times.