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Defense Counsel 'Deserts' Grow in Rural U.S.

Chronic underfunding and understaffing of public defender systems in many states has created "legal deserts" in mostly rural places where there are fewer than one attorney per 1,000 people, The Marshall Project reports. Sixty years after Gideon v. Wainwright established a constitutional right to criminal defense counsel, the supply of available lawyers is dwindling as rural lawyers retire at a much faster pace than they are being replaced, said Pamela Metzger, director of the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at Southern Methodist University, citing research on legal deserts in Texas. “We don't teach about it in law school. We don't make it a viable career opportunity, and we’ve priced everybody out of practicing in rural areas,” Metzger said.

John P. Gross, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin, says the lack of adequate budgets and staff has left public defender systems in many states — including Oregon, Louisiana and New Mexico — in a near-perpetual state of crisis, with defenders assigned to many more cases than they can realistically handle. Those problems extend beyond the lawyer scarcity in rural areas and into many of America’s largest cities as well. Because of limitations in the protections guaranteed by Gideon, roughly half of U.S. counties do not provide defense counsel at bail hearings — which determine if a person will await trial behind bars — potentially for months or even years, according to an analysis from the Rand Corporation. Similarly, despite a recent rule change in Mississippi, low-income criminal defendants there frequently go months without a lawyer between their preliminary hearing and being indicted. Research suggests that a lack of representation at these early stages may leave more defendants, who are presumed innocent, locked up. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, began offering defense counsel at some bail hearings several years ago, but didn’t have enough lawyers available to provide one for all defendants. That created an accidental experiment on the effect of legal representation, and the difference was clear: People with lawyers were 20% more likely to be released without cash bail than those who didn’t have a lawyer.


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