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.

If You Haven’t Done Anything Wrong, You Have Nothing to Worry About

From the Baltimore Sun:

Mary and Michael Major’s 18-year-old son, Miles, was roused from slumber and arrested at home early on the morning of Friday, April 27. He and another young man from the neighborhood were charged with first- and second-degree assault stemming from an attack by five boys on a fellow Lansdowne High School student in mid-March.

The victim claimed to have been held by one boy while another cut him several times with a knife. He showed a Baltimore County police officer more than two dozen small wounds, described in the police report as superficial.

The victim described Miles Major as a lookout for those who carried out the assault.

Mary Major’s son had never been charged with a crime.

And she had never experienced the court commissioner system.

“The commissioner set a bail of $325,000 and sent the young men to Towson Detention Center,” Mary Major says. “It happened so fast, I didn’t know what to do. I elected to obtain a bail bonds company and have [Miles] released on Saturday, as I don’t feel it would have been fair or good for him mentally to spend the weekend in the detention center awaiting a bail review.”

So she and her husband made a nonrefundable $10,000 payment — a break in the usual price, the bail bondsman told them — to get their son released until his trial.

But, ladies and gentlemen, there never was a trial.

The charges against Miles Major were dismissed a month after his arrest. Baltimore County police determined that the accusations were false. When confronted by a prosecutor, the victim had recanted his story, according to Scott D. Shellenberger, the county state’s attorney.

Of course, for the Major family, the damage had been done.

“My husband and I have had to drain our savings between paying the bail and paying an attorney $3,000, and this commissioner gets to sit back without repercussions, as well as the police officers . … Where is the justice? What happened to bringing people in for questioning first? I mean, really, how many tax dollars were wasted on this case? Not to mention my son’s loss of wages while being in jail, along with my loss of wages trying to get him released.”

Her complaints go back to the start of the process — to the “victim” who lied, of course, but also to the police who raided her house, and to the court commissioner whose actions cost her $13,000.

Bail is supposed to be about making sure a defendant shows up for trial. Miles Major hardly fit the profile of a flight risk — an 18-year-old boy with no criminal record, employed at a local restaurant, still living at home with his parents.

Can you spare $13,000?