Poor Routinely Denied Right to Counsel

By Henry Weinstein, LA Times Staff Writer

Four decades after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision mandating that poor defendants in criminal cases are entitled to legal representation, a group of prominent American lawyers says the promise of that ruling remains unfulfilled.

“There are still defendants who have not been provided competent counsel — or they have no real representation at all,” the Constitution Project and the National Legal Aid and Defender Assn. said late last month in announcing formation of the National Committee on the Right to Counsel to address the issue.

“Even though state and local governments are responsible for ensuring adequate counsel for defendants who cannot afford to hire their own lawyers, many people … are nonetheless still convicted and imprisoned each year without any legal representation” or with an inadequate one, the Washington-based group said.

The attorney may be handling hundreds of other cases, have no expertise in criminal law or have no funds to investigate facts or get DNA tests.Four years ago, the Justice Department declared that public defense in the U.S. is in a “chronic state of crisis.”

Rhoda Billings, former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court and one of the three co-chairs of the new committee, said examples of problems abound.

“In some instances across the country, courts have upheld convictions even when the defendants were represented by lawyers who slept through portions of the trial or were drunk or under the influence of drugs,” she said. “That level of performance is not what the constitutional right to counsel means.”

Maybe not but it’s what we expect. The promise of the law has sometimes been the only friend the poor have; the reality of an over-burdened legal system, laws dangerously skewed toward and in favor of prosecutors, and a growing cadre of conservative judges, especially in the appellate courts, who regularly express dubious legal convictions and follow them up with even more dubious decisions which conservative state governments then refuse to revisit, have combined to make ‘justice’ an increasingly rare commodity for anyone without a silver spoon stuck to their lip.

Lenny Bruce, who said, ‘In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls’, was once sentenced to a jail term because he refused to pay the judge a $10,000 bribe. Today’s corruption may not be that blatant but it cuts us out of the process just as effectively. Contributions to judges’ campaigns are beyond our means; expensive lawyers with political connections are out of the question; Public Defenders are paid so little and at the same time so overworked that few lawyers with as much as a shred of talent volunteer any more; and the old bulwark of legal protection for the poor, the Legal Aid Society, which has been under attack by conservatives for twenty years, has had its funding cut so drastically that in many states it’s out of business.

As a society, we are paying $$billions$$ for a prison system where inmates are not only disproportionately minority, they are disproportionately poor and, some studies suggest, contain a significant number of people who would not be there if they had had legitimate representation at their trials.

There’s a lot that needs fixing in our judicial system; the tilt toward protecting the rights of the affluent while ignoring the rights of those who lack the money to enforce them should be at the top of the list. It isn’t.


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