National Police Misconduct Reporting Project

50 Years Since Gideon v. Wainright

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case of Gideon v. Wainright, which held that if someone accused of a crime cannot afford an attorney, the government would provide a lawyer for him or her.   This video tells the story of the case.

So, do the poor stand in a much better position in 2013?  Karen Houppert, author of Chasing Gideon, observes:

[O]ver time the war on drugs, the “three strikes” laws and the lock-’em-up mentality of politicians have led to indigent clients flooding the courts. Courts are overburdened, and across the country, lawyers for the poor are routinely buried beneath crushing caseloads and working in underfunded offices. Without adequate resources, it’s hard to hire the investigators, experts or paralegals to mount a good defense. The stakes are high — for the man on death row to the teen picked up for marijuana possession.

To keep up with the crushing caseloads, many propose more public defenders and more funding.    That view is mistaken–both in theory and as a matter of practical politics.   Budgets are tight everywhere.  In this policy climate, politicians are not going to allocate more money for persons accused of crimes.  Not happening.

To improve the administration of justice for poor persons, we need to work on the “front end” of the system.  Ending the drug war would greatly reduce the flood of persons entering the system–persons who do not belong in the system.  Ending the drug war would save the taxpayers money and it would actually enhance public safety.

And, instead of a public defender monopoly, a better approach would be to allow persons accused of crimes to use vouchers to choose their own attorneys.  Just as school vouchers empower poor persons to bypass the local public school, defense vouchers would empower poor persons to hire their own attorney, instead of having one imposed upon them by the government.  For additional background information, go here.