Report Calls Out Flaws In Public Defender System

The American legal system guarantees "equal justice under law." Those words, carved in stone on the facade of the Supreme Court, are a constitutional promise that everyone will have the same opportunity for justice.

But a new report by the bipartisan Constitution Project says the United States has broken that promise for poor people accused of crimes. The report is the most in-depth study of indigent defense in decades.

The Gideon Decision

In a hallway of a law firm in downtown Washington, a copy of a handwritten petition hangs framed on the wall. It's two pages, side by side. A stamp at the top says: "January 8, 1962, Office of the Clerk, Supreme Court." A signature at the bottom says, "Clarence Earl Gideon."

On Tuesday morning, Abe Krash stood looking at the petition, remembering a case that he worked on more than 45 years ago. "This eventually led to the opinion and decision by the Supreme Court in the Gideon case," he said.

Abe Krash was a young attorney on the case. It's now considered one of the most important decisions of the 20th century. As Krash describes it, the ruling "held that every person in this country who is tried on a criminal charge is entitled to the assistance of a lawyer, regardless of his financial condition. If he's too poor to hire a lawyer, he's entitled to have one appointed for him by the government."

The Gideon decision helped establish the system of public defenders across the country. Krash returned to his old law firm Tuesday for the release of the report on the state of that system.

'A Basic Constitutional Right'

"It does not paint a pretty picture," said Tim Lewis, one of the report's authors.

Lewis is a former federal judge who co-chairs the Constitution Project's National Right to Counsel Committee. His group spent five years studying indigent defense in every state. Lewis said far too many states fail miserably.

"You should not have a better shot at justice, a better opportunity for an adequate defense, depending upon who arrests you in this country or where you were when you were arrested or what court system a defendant winds up in," Lewis said. "This is a basic constitutional right."

The right is set out in the Sixth Amendment: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

Robert Johnson, another of the committee's co-chairs, said, "Someone must stand with the accused against the might of the state."

That's a statement one might expect to hear from a defense attorney, but Johnson is a prosecutor who used to be head of the National District Attorneys Association.

"We're not there just to convict," said Johnson. "Our job is to find justice. And I need a person standing with the defendant to help me do that."

Johnson said American courts rely on an adversarial system that pits prosecutors against defense attorneys. For the system to work, the adversaries have to be evenly matched.

Failing The Poor

The report goes into detail about the wide range of ways public defender systems fail poor defendants. Sometimes people don't get lawyers at all. Other times they get a lawyer who is so overworked and underpaid that there's no way the accused can get a real defense.

When that happens, the system ends up with people like Alan Crotzer, a man who spent 24 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. "I was poor and indigent," said Crotzer. "I didn't have no political connections, but I was innocent. And because of that fault in me, I spent more than half of my life in prison."

Crotzer was released when DNA evidence proved his innocence. He has been out for three years, and he's part of the committee that helped produce the report.

The study includes a list of recommendations to fix public defender systems — for example, each state should have a commission to oversee indigent defense. These steps may not be cheap, and it's a difficult time to convince states to spend money.

Lewis argues that there's really no choice. "Even in difficult economic times, how much is a constitutional right worth?" he asked. "What price tag do we place on the right to vote? The right to be free from illegal searches and seizures? This is no different."

Now the authors of this report will try to make that case to officials at the Justice Department, in Congress and in statehouses across the country.

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