Gideon: A Promise Unfilled - by Congressman John Conyers, Jr.
Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's historic decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, in which the court held that the Constitution's Sixth Amendment requires the government to provide counsel to indigent defendants facing criminal prosecution.
Unfortunately, the constitutional guarantee implicit in the Gideon decision is in peril.
To begin with, the federal public defender program — which is one of the most cost-effective programs that enables us to fulfill Gideon's mandate to provide counsel to indigent defendants — is facing a severe funding crisis.
The budget for the program has been substantially cut twice in the last two months. These cuts could amount to as much as 20 percent reduction in the program's funding. As a result, the program has been forced to furlough and layoff staff. Some federal public defender offices may need to require 40 days of furloughs.
Keep in mind that furloughs of any substantial length will force federal public defenders to decline appointments to represent newly arrested defendants and will prevent them from being able to effectively manage already assigned cases.
Along with several other members of Congress, I wrote a letter to Chief Justice John Roberts, expressing concerns about the deleterious effects that funding cuts may have on the federal public defender program.
These cuts are, in large part, attributable to the congressionally-mandated sequester that is affecting virtually every component of the federal government. How sequestration impacts the federal public defender program simply illustrates how we in Congress are being penny wise and pound foolish. When funding for the federal public defender program is cut, we risk violating our constitutional obligation to ensure that the indigent have representation. This is a shameful result 50 years after Gideon.
Another factor to consider is the way the current system of plea bargaining has distorted the criminal justice system due, in no small part, to Congress mandating longer and longer sentences and the willingness of prosecutors to pursue and compound the sentences. When a defendant accepts a plea bargain, he or she agrees to plead guilty to a crime, usually to a lesser crime than in the original charge, and waives his or her right to a jury trial. For the most recent year studied, 97 percent of federal cases and 94 percent of state cases were resolved by guilty pleas. Criminal defendants often accept the prosecutor's deal, sometimes even if innocent, because the risk of going to trial and getting a much stiffer sentence is just too great.
And the sentences that defendants are being forced into accepting are too long. According to the nonpartisan think tank, Pew Center on the States, the average length of prison sentences has increased by 36 percent just since 1990. America's plea bargaining system, in which defendants are waiving their constitutional right to a trial more than 90 percent of the time, marginalizes the role of the criminal defense lawyer in a way we never would have envisioned when Gideon was decided. Today, the prosecutor controls the fate of the criminal defendant when he or she decides which crimes to charge and what plea deal to offer. The defense lawyer's role is essentially limited to negotiating guilty pleas and sentences. In order to live up to the vision of Gideon, we must fundamentally change the current system of plea bargaining.
Finally, we need to address the problem that many of the legal needs of the poor are unmet, which directly contravenes the spirit of Gideon. Although Gideon is about the provision of legal services in criminal cases, the need is much greater than that. Civil matters presenting complex legal issues, ranging from child custody disputes to home foreclosures, can be a minefield for indigent Americans who cannot afford legal representation. Unrepresented litigants typically consume more court resources as judges and their staffs sort through their pleadings and submissions.
A litigant without legal representation can incur serious consequences in the court system, even imprisonment. A recent piece by Ethan Bronner in the New York Times examined how an individual was imprisoned in a Georgia jail for 17 months because he did not have $2,700 for a child support payment. As a result of losing his job during the recession, he fell behind on support payments for his four children. Although he had no prior jail record, those charged with failing to pay child support in Georgia are not supplied with a lawyer.
If we truly want to honor the 50th anniversary of Gideon, we need to conduct a top-down review of our nation's criminal justice system. Former Senator Jim Webb, D - Virginia, introduced and championed the National Criminal Justice Commission Act while he was in the Senate. That act would establish a bipartisan commission charged with conducting a thorough review of our nation's entire criminal justice system and providing Congress with specific, concrete recommendations for reform.
Hopefully, by the time we next pause to celebrate Gideon v. Wainwright, we will be able to feel confident that the United States is truly living up to the promises inherent in this landmark case.
U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., D - Detroit, represents Michigan’s 13th District in Congress.