America’s public defense system needs an overhaul
Historically, public defenders are drastically overworked and alarmingly underfunded, and, as a result, many defendants are being underrepresented and forced to take plea deals or serve pre-conviction prison time. Allocating more money and resources to these problems is necessary in order to combat a large problem in how we treat the accused.
In the United States, more than 80 percent of those charged with felonies are indigent and therefore cannot afford to pay for legal counsel. Because the Sixth Amendment guarantees a right to counsel, this means that many are provided with what is known as a public defender to provide them with fair treatment under the law.
The need for a public defense system was made clear long ago in the historic Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright. In the case, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that states are constitutionally required to provide an attorney to defendants in criminal cases. More than 50 years later, however, many believe that the public defense system has failed to uphold the Supreme Court’s decision in action.
The first, and arguably most important, reason the public defense system is in need of repair is because of the sheer caseload. The system is so jam-packed with cases that many defenders aren’t able to properly perform core functions like undergoing a factual investigation into guilt or innocence. In states like Florida, the problem is so severe that the caseload of the average public defender has risen to 500 felonies and an astonishing 2,225 misdemeanor cases each year.
Unfortunately, this example presented in Florida is not unique. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that 73 percent of country public defenders had far surpassed the recommended maximum caseload standards of 150 felonies and 400 misdemeanors.
With this dangerously high caseload in mind, a reasonable question would be to ask why public defenders don’t turn down cases they can’t adequately defend.
The unfortunate answer is that many have no choice. In fact, 60 percent of states don’t allow public defenders to turn down cases — an idea with good intentions, but horrible results.
In theory, these states appear to be upholding the right to counsel by letting no case go undefended. In practice, however, these states are actually doing more harm than good. Through this system, there is no avenue for alternative measures.
Such measures include offering private attorneys the cases for an hourly fee, the use of contract attorneys and other non-full-time defenders who can help out.
Another reason why our public defense system is failing is due to the meager budget allocated to them. Not only does the United States fall behind every European country in terms of per capita spending on public defense, but budget cuts around the nation continue to add insult to injury.
In states like Texas, where more than 50 percent of indigent defense funding comes from counties, it’s clear that more contribution from the state would make a difference.
A possible proactive solution includes decriminalization of small misdemeanor charges that flood the system. For example, the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana and opting for counseling or therapy for other drug-related charges could potentially help others in the system who are at risk of graver consequences without adequate representation.
Additionally, this severely backed up system is in large part responsible for the massive pre-trial jail time assigned to those who have not even yet been deemed guilty of a crime. According to the Department of Justice, approximately 500,000 people are in jail at any given time without having been convicted or tried. We cannot realistically claim that the Sixth Amendment is upheld when perversions of the right to counsel and due process are being committed on a large scale.
The indigent and those accused of criminal wrongdoing are a segment of the population that is largely voiceless and is one that many people do not sympathize with. So while the approach to a solution is varied, its necessity is clear. Counties, states and the federal government need to address this problem as an urgent constitutional crisis.
Whether it be investing in alternative methods to supplement public defenders, allocating larger budgets or decriminalizing misdemeanors that only serve to clog the public justice system and fill up prisons, something must be done now.
Opinion columnist Ryan Nowrouzi is a biomedical sciences junior and can be reached at [email protected]