Are the Poor in the US Denied Access to Justice?
Everyone knows that Justice is supposed to be blind, but does Justice have a credit card reader in her back pocket?
A new report issued by the bipartisan Constitution Project suggests that those who cannot afford access to legal services are not properly served by the public defender system.
The indigent defense system was established by the Supreme Court's decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, which held that there was a constitutional right to be represented by an attorney during a criminal trial.
It's an idea that forms a cornerstone of the American justice system but, according to the report, budget shortfalls and overwork have undermined the public defenders offices around the country and created a system where the poor don't have equal access to counsel.
The report calls for an oversight committee of public defenders offices, and more federal funds for indigent defense. These recommendations won't be easy to implement, however, since money is tight and politicians are acutely aware of their constituents' likely anger at taxpayer money going to provide more services for criminal defendants when so many regular Joes are losing their jobs and their homes.
The alternative might be just as infuriating, however. One of the members of the committee that helped produce the report spent 24 years in prison, and was only released after DNA evidence proved his innocence. He blames his imprisonment on his indigence.
As one of the report's authors puts it: "How much is a constitutional right worth?"
The trouble is, in tough times like these, we might just find out the answer - and we might not like it.
Report Calls Out Flaws In Public Defender System (NPR)