Fifty years after Gideon and the right to counsel, public defenders are overworked
In the U.S. every person accused of crime has the right to legal representation. That's thanks to a landmark 1963 Supreme Court decision in a case called Gideon versus Wainwright. The rights solidified in Gideon were celebrated last night at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport.
Stetson Law professor and Dean Emeritus Bruce Jacob was working for the Attorney General of Florida in 1963. Jacob was assigned the task of writing the legal brief and arguing this landmark case on behalf of the State. Before the panel discussion, Jacob said the core of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling extended the right to counsel to the poor and everyone else.
"The question is whether the right to counsel; whether the right in felony cases every defendant, regardless of the circumstances of the case should automatically be entitled to counsel for his defense. Before that there was a rule that the Supreme Court had ruled in a case called Betts v. Brady that counsel must be appointed if under the facts of the case it would be difficult for the defendant to obtain a fair trial without having counsel. And in that situation counsel had to be appointed. But in the case where you had, say, a lawyer who was charged with a crime, who knew how to defend himself the state would not have to pay for a defense lawyer."
About 100 people watched documentary about Gideon and heard from a panel discussion from experts that public defenders are overwhelmed with work. Because every defendant must have representation, the average workload for public defenders is often 10-times higher than recommended by advocacy groups and think tanks. Christopher Durocher, with the Washington D.C. based think tank Constitution Project, said this limits their ability in giving adequate counsel.
"And what that essentially means is that they have about enough time to learn their clients name; communicate to them the prosecution has offered a plea; and then recommend whether they should take the plea...based on no investigation of the case; no examination of their client's criminal history and potential consequences of a guilty plea in that particular case. So what you get is what's called Meet 'em and Plead 'em. Where you don't really have representation."
One option to lessen the workload of the public defenders would be to require other attorneys to volunteer their time to defend people who can't afford a lawyer. Chris Pietruszkiewicz, Dean of the College of Law at Stetson, said each law student is required to put in 60 hours of pro bono legal work, which helps familiarize them with legal ethics.
"Well, you know; it's the value of the legal education but also the values we want to instill in these students that come to law school here. So a big part of that is, yes, part of it is a top-down piece. We are requiring students to have 60 hours of pro bono service. What that doesn't say is that all the students that do a 100, 150 or 200 hours pro bono service. So we're merely setting the floor and our impact on the community is so much greater because the students do as many hours as they can. The don't just do it by themselves; they also do it with our faculty and staff who very much participate in this process."
Practicing attorneys could lend more pro bono hours to representing indigent defendants. The modern complexities of criminal law restrict many attorneys from devoting more volunteer time. Bruce Jacob, the professor who argued the case in front of the Supreme Court, said he remembers when this wasn't the case.
"Back when I was first practicing almost every lawyer I knew had been appointed by the court to handle a case for no fee. Lawyers all expected to be called to represent a defendant without pay. Because public defenders are doing it all, I think most lawyers just say; well, the public defender does that why do we have to do it? I think we've lost a lot in not having more volunteer work by attorneys."
Resolving the workload of public defenders might seem complicated; like finding more funding for public defenders or more pro bono work. Bob Dillinger, the elected Public Defender for Pinellas and Pasco Counties, said the solution is straightforward.
"Well, I think if we got rid of some of these minimum mandatories it would help us significantly in terms of where we have to put our resources. You know, while case loads have actually gone down a little bit, the penalties have gone very much higher. So we have to spend more time on cases that really aren't deserving of those types of sentences. But, since it's a possibility that the client can get it we have to work on it and spend more and more time. If we didn't have to that we could increase our services."
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