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The Plight of the Public Defender

What if your freedom were in the hands of the public defender?

That’s the title of this recent blog post by a former public defender who writes eloquently about the plight of our country’s public-defense system.

He’s not alone. In 2014, many others spoke, wrote, and campaigned to urge us to understand that, in the 21st century, the price of freedom and justice is a well-funded public-defense system with manageable caseloads.

Put simply, as we’ve covered here before, there is no freedom without defense, and for the vast majority of Americans, there is no defense at all in the absence of a public-defense system. Even those who believe they will never need a criminal-defense attorney should understand that, most of the time, it’s the public defenders who litigate the issues that affect us all and who breathe life into our body of rights. Without the means to defend them, those rights are just words on paper.

Hope springs eternal. In 2014, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Criminal Justice Act of 1964, which created our modern public-defense system in the federal courts. That law came on the heels of the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Sixth Amendment means what it says and that every state in the union must provide the accused with the assistance of counsel if he or she can’t afford it. See Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963). What the Supreme Court did not do in the Gideon case—to borrow another’s words—was to require the states to enforce the right to counsel through funding that ensures adequate representation in all cases. Let’s resolve to make that a reality so that America says what it means and means what it says. Let’s make that a reality so that America may continue to lead the way, like we need it to, in this brave new world.

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