In Gideon, the U.S. Supreme Court observed that “lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries.”
But fifty years later, we still fall short of the full promise of the Sixth Amendment, and the struggle is real.
National standards recommend that public defenders handle no more than 150 felony cases, 400 misdemeanor cases, or 200 juvenile cases per year. As a lawyer, I can tell you those are a lot of cases, but I don’t need to. We all know there are only 365 days in a year.
The reality is that very few defender’s offices have enough lawyers to meet those standards. By some counts, only 27 percent of county-based offices and 21 percent of state-based offices do. What’s worse, only seven percent of county-based offices have enough investigators to meet those standards. And many don’t employ a single full-time investigator.
The consequences are as follows: more people sit in jail for longer after arrest (which costs money); more people plead guilty to get out, taking bad deals or copping to things they didn’t do; the system as a whole makes more mistakes, including wrongful convictions; and people receive harsher, excessive sentences.
Gideon may have been an unfunded mandate, but it’s as fundamental as the heavens, and it’s mandated by the Sixth Amendment. What would we be without it?