The National Association for Public Defense (NAPD) applauds the United States Department of Justice’s filing of the Statement of Interest in the Hurrell-Harring case in New York, upholding in grand fashion the fundamental right to counsel. On Thursday morning, the Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest in a lawsuit filed in district court in New York State. This lawsuit alleges that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel is being denied in New York State, particularly in the upstate region. It is alleged that public defenders are operating under a lack of resources, under-staffing and high workloads. As a result, “traditional markers of representation” are not present, such as appropriate investigation of cases, timely consultation between defendant and attorney, and the adversarial testing of the state’s case.

States, counties, and cities are failing to provide sufficient resources to ensure that constitutional rights are being preserved. The source of the crisis is clear: the states are not providing sufficient resources for public defense organizations to hire enough lawyers, investigators, social workers, experts, and other professionals to meet the requirements of the Constitution. The result is our members are structurally disabled from being able to meet their obligations. And our clients are being systemically denied their right to counsel, resulting in many of them sitting in jails without an attorney, or without an attorney who has sufficient time to meet with them, counsel them, investigate their case, or research the issues in their case. This massive failure of state and local governments nationwide threatens public safety by resulting in inaccurate verdicts and undermining public confidence in the justice system.

Indigent defense is in a state of crisis nationwide. The Department of Justice’s Statement of Interest accurately assesses the state of the right to counsel throughout the nation: Quoting the Attorney General, the statement notes that “’America’s indigent defense systems continue to exist in a state of crisis, and the promise of Gideon is not being met.’” NAPD’s members and our members’ clients experience this crisis every day in courtrooms, jails, prisons, and neighborhoods.

The justice system, by design, is adversarial in nature. When the system becomes unbalanced because one side is underfunded and has little in the way of quality oversight, the system stops functioning as intended. The risk of innocent persons going to prison increases. The risk of inappropriately excessive punishment becomes a reality. Where an innocent person is in prison the real culprit remains free. Where excessive punishment is imposed taxpayers expend vast sums of money for excessive sentences that will result in higher recidivism rates. And these are just two examples of failures that result from an underfunded system. Countless lives of those who suffer injustice at the hands of a broken adversarial system and the lives of their families are forever altered.

NAPD formed in order to address the problems in our systems. NAPD is an organization of 8500 public defense professionals, including 50 organizations nationwide. NAPD formed in the fall of 2013 precisely because the legislative and judicial branches of government were failing to ensure the right to counsel nationwide. Stronger together, we banded together to bring a collective expertise to the many issues threatening constitutional public defense delivery.

NAPD believes the federal government’s involvement is vital if the right to counsel is to be enforced through the nation. The federal government has now made clear that this crisis in indigent defense is of vital interest to the federal government. These failures are systemic and widespread, not confined to an individual case or isolated area of the country as displayed by the federal government’s interventions in Memphis, St. Louis, and Washington State. For 50 years, local
and state jurisdictions have failed to implement the promise of equal access to justice. With decades of injustice behind us, it is clear that more proactive, specific advocacy from the federal government is essential to support the right to counsel. And this filing is not the end but only the beginning. The public defense crisis is widespread and systemic and it risks justice being available in the majority of jurisdictions across the country.