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60 Years After Gideon, Public Defenders Underpaid, Shortstaffed

Much of the nation’s public defense work for the poor is impeded by inadequate funding, short staffing, and staggering caseloads, reports USA Today. Sixty years after the Supreme Court ruling that guaranteed legal representation to poor defendants accused of serious crimes, Associate U.S. Attorney General Vanita Gupta described a system in “crisis.” “The crisis in indigent defense around the country is too visible,” Gupta said, as the department prepared to mark the anniversary of the ruling acknowledging Clarence Gideon’s right to counsel in the 1963 case known as Gideon v. Wainwright. This month, Gupta and other top DOJ officials have been crisscrossing the U.S., from Florida to Nevada, to call attention to a system in need. In Des Moines, Ia. the good news is that public defense lawyers have all the technology available at any modern law office. The bad news is that Jeff Wright, the state's chief public defender, said it is becoming increasingly difficult to find lawyers willing to do the work. Defenders are paid $56,000 to start, significantly below what private firms can offer, and even some of the state's more urban counties start prosecutors at about $86,000.

Iowa's stable of contract attorneys has declined significantly since 2014, from about 1,000 to 560. "I think there is no question that having strong defense counsel and strong systemic solutions to the indigent defense crisis is vital to a well-functioning justice system," said Gupta, who as a young civil rights attorney worked to overturn the wrongful convictions of nearly 40 people in Texas. In an attempt to address some of the substantial gaps, DOJ announced a new post in its Office for Access to Justice to assist state and local defenders in the search for additional resources. In Miami, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco outlined an effort to assess federal suspects' access to counsel while they are held before trial in federal prison facilities. The 100-day review, Monaco said, is aimed at promoting "consistent, timely access to counsel." “Access to counsel is fundamental to the fairness and accuracy of our criminal justice system, and the Bureau of Prisons has a critical role to play in upholding this bedrock right," Monaco said. "The BOP works to facilitate access to counsel for those in its custody, but there is more we can do to make Gideon’s promise a reality."


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