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February 4, 2012

Attorney General Holder Announces Support for Indigent Defense Systems at ABA Summit

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks during the ABA Summit on Indigent Defense Improvement

As the nation prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, participants at the ABA annual Summit on Indigent Defense Improvement Feb. 4, during the association’s Midyear Meeting, unanimously agreed that full access to competent counsel for indigent defendants has fallen far short of Gideon’s promise.
A “crisis” is how U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder characterized the patchwork of state indigent defense systems before announcing two new Department of Justice grant programs. Totaling up to $1.4 million, the funding will be used to research indigent defense issues and help jurisdictions improve their public defender and assigned counsel systems.

A broken system

Holder’s remarks underscored presentations throughout the summit describing the myriad of ineffective, overburdened systems that involve varying combinations of full-time public defenders and appointed private counsel of varying levels of competence and compensation. Some indigent defense systems are coordinated and funded at the state level, while many vary county by county, experts noted.

“Across the country, public defender offices and other indigent defense providers are underfunded and understaffed,” Holder said. “Too often, when legal representation is available to the poor, it’s rendered less effective by insufficient resources, overwhelming caseloads and inadequate oversight.

“As a result, too many defendants are left to languish in jail for weeks, or even months, before counsel is appointed,” he continued. “Too many children and adults enter the criminal justice system with nowhere to turn for guidance—and little understanding of their rights, the charges against them, or the potential sentences and collateral consequences they face. Some are even encouraged to waive their right to counsel altogether.”

Recent developments

Summit presentations reviewed developments in indigent defense, such as new court decisions, legislation and funding. Participants learned of class-action lawsuits challenging ineffective indigent defense systems in Michigan and New York, and of legal challenges to public defender caseloads in Florida and Missouri that well exceed ABA standards.

Norman Lefstein, a professor at Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis, described policy reforms in his new ABA book on the public defender caseload crisis. The book was produced by a grant and is available free of charge as a downloadable PDF or bound hard-copy at www.indigentdefense.org.

Lefstein also moderated a discussion on the successes bar associations have had in mobilizing support for public defender system funding and reforms. Panelists included leaders of the Louisiana, Alabama, New York State and San Mateo, Calif., bar associations, along with representatives of the Innocence Project of Texas and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

One of many examples of the crisis was offered by John Gross, indigent defense counsel for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Citing his organization’s study, “Three-Minute Justice: Haste and Waste in Florida’s Misdemeanor Courts,” Gross said 66 percent of those defendants studied appeared at arraignment without counsel, 50 percent of defendants who appeared at arraignment without counsel waived their right to counsel, and 70 percent of cases were resolved at arraignment.

During one session, managers of public defender systems were encouraged to adopt time-keeping regimens to identify inefficiencies and build evidence to lobby for additional funds. Other panelists said one approach to reducing caseloads would be to decriminalize minor offenses that currently burden the public defense and prison systems.

Holder applauds the ABA

Holder lauded the ABA for its efforts at encouraging reform.

“Fortunately, the _ has responded to this crisis not with despair, but with dedication, optimism, and a plan of action,” the attorney general said. “For years, ABA members have taken a leadership role in advocating for quality indigent defense systems.

“You’ve laid out important guidelines and policies for improving legal representation for disadvantaged populations,” Holder told participants. “In many cases, you’ve lent your time and expertise to help make these policies a reality. And—through the “Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System” that the ABA released exactly a decade ago—you’ve not only given shape to our aspirations, but quite literally set the standard, and developed a framework for progress.”

Holder said he reviewed—and applauded—the recommendations of an ABA focus group of public defenders, prosecutors, legislators and others on reforming indigent defense systems.

“Together, this diverse group worked to develop concrete strategies for reforming our nation’s indigent defense systems, and to identify actions that the Justice Department can take to help facilitate this work,” Holder said. “Their findings … will undoubtedly guide reform efforts long into the future. And their recommendations will reinforce the robust commitment that the Department has already demonstrated.”

A copy of Holder’s remarks are available here.

The summit was presented by the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants.

Watch a video of the Attorney General Holder’s remarks at the Midyear Meeting.