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Report Offers Solutions to U.S. Indigent Defense Crisis in Gideon’s 50th Anniversary Year

CHICAGO, Jan. 8, 2013 – To help address systemic failures in providing constitutionally required legal counsel for indigent defendants, states can implement reforms such as reducing the number of criminal cases through reclassification and diversion or implementing other important, low-cost changes, according to a report by the _ Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

The organizations are releasing National Indigent Defense Reform: The Solution is Multifaceted at the beginning of the 50th anniversary year of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright. On March 18, 1963, the court unanimously ruled that the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel applies regardless of whether a defendant can afford to pay a lawyer.

The report, available online here, documents a daylong discussion of 18 leading innovators in the indigent defense field representing all branches and levels of government, prosecutors, defense lawyers, law professors and nongovernmental organizations. Their blueprint for reform, often based on successful existing programs throughout the country, is organized into three broad areas:

  • Implementation of front-end reforms such as reclassification and diversion, which help reduce the number of cases entering the system;
  • Creation of indigent defense commissions and establishment of public defense training and performance standards; and
  • Improved collaboration and cooperation within and outside the criminal justice system to achieve significant, sustainable reform.

In his remarks at the ABA’s National Summit on Indigent Defense in February 2012, which are included in the report, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder recounted the nation’s well-documented crisis in providing criminal defense for people who cannot afford a lawyer:

“Across the country, public defender offices and other indigent defense providers are underfunded and understaffed. Too often, when legal representation is available to the poor, it’s rendered less effective by insufficient resources, overwhelming caseloads, and inadequate oversight…. [T]he basic rights guaranteed under Gideon have yet to be fully realized. Millions of Americans still struggle to access the legal services that they need and deserve – and to which they are constitutionally entitled. And far too many public defender systems lack the basic tools they need to function properly.”

Said ABA President Laurel G. Bellows: “The ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants is pleased to join the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in presenting these valuable recommendations for solving the nation’s indigent defense crisis. Every criminal defendant, whether rich or poor, deserves a qualified lawyer to defend against the state’s charges. We hope that policymakers will consider our joint report, along with ABA guidelines, standards and other resources available at www.indigentdefense.org, to make needed changes and fully implement the Supreme Court’s Gideon decision.”

Said NACDL President Steven D. Benjamin: “NACDL is committed to the full realization of the promise of Gideon. We will work tirelessly until it is achieved. This report adds valuable insight and perspective to NACDL’s significant research in this area. We are proud to have been a part of this important addition to that work.”

The report was funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and prepared by professor Joel M. Schumm of the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. The project was co-chaired by professor Adele Bernhard of Pace Law School, professor Robert C. Boruchowitz of the Seattle University School of Law, and NACDL Executive Director Norman L. Reimer.

In addition to the report, this same BJA grant-funded project allowed the ABA and NACDL to provide free national defender trainings in Atlanta, Ga.; Austin, Texas; Indianapolis, Ind.; Las Vegas, Nev.; Lubbock, Texas; and Memphis, Tenn., on topics including forensic science, client-centered representation and advocacy skills.

With nearly 400,000 members, the _ is the one of the largest voluntary professional membership organizations in the world. As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law.