The Public Defender Crisis: Part 1
Every single day across the width and breadth of America Public Defenders struggle to provide representation and insure fairness in the operation of our Criminal Justice System in thousands of cases, with the potential for erosion of the respect for law and order obviously magnified.
As my novel, Gideon’s Children, illustrates, the first wave of Public Defenders created by the 1963 Gideon decision’s mandate for representation were underfunded and frequently overwhelmed. What’s truly frightening is that today, 53 years after the landmark Gideon decision, working conditions are as bad or even worse.
As the brilliant commentator Leonard Pitts, Jr. pointed out in his syndicated newspaper column, a single Public Defender in many jurisdictions “can be expected to try 400, 500, 600 cases a year,” a burden that makes full investigation and proper representation impossible. Further substantiating this dire situation The New York Times reported “that defender agencies in Missouri and Miami have won, in state Supreme Courts, the right to refuse cases they cannot responsibly handle” The same source reported that in New York, Governor Cuomo “has agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit that accused New York State of failing to provide adequate legal defense for the poor in several counties, committing the state to paying for bigger and better public defender offices”.
Now, you might ask, is the Public Defender Crisis limited to large and heavily populated cities and states? And the answer is, no, it is not. Similar conditions to those detailed above exist nationwide, and like the violence connected to Ferguson, threaten to tear far larger holes in the fabric of our society unless corrected.
In closing, however, I want to stress the fact that while it is uncomfortable for all of us Americans to address, in the richest society in world history, we nevertheless have a significant number of our fellow citizens living at or below the poverty line. And if we expect our economically stressed class of citizens to maintain respect for the Rule of Law, and act accordingly, then we must insure that they can honestly believe in the ability of our criminal justice system to perform fairly for all citizens. And, I would add for your consideration, that it was never more necessary for this essential value to be preserved and strengthened than during an era of ever growing economic inequality.