RIGHT OF THE DAY: Free Legal Defense When Charged With Serious Crime

YOUR RIGHT OF THE DAY: If you are charged with a serious crime, and cannot afford an attorney, the government must provide you with a defense attorney free of charge. 1U.S. Constitution, 6th amendment; Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963); Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25 (1972)

More specifically, this means low-income people cannot be put in jail without being provided an attorney (usually a “public defender”) to defend their rights.

While many people tend to believe that the truly innocent don’t need lawyers to defend them, and that lawyers only exist to get people off the hook for crimes they should be punished for, human nature tells us this is not accurate. Like it or not, we all have biases and different perspectives in how we look at and judge situations, based on our unique experiences in life. A lawyer’s tasks include challenging a juror’s perspective on the facts of the case, helping a potentially under-educated and disadvantaged criminal defendant tell his/her story, and uncovering evidence for the defendant’s case that the prosecution overlooks or chooses not to present.

As the Supreme Court decided in the 1960s, this basic level of defense should not depend on whether one can or cannot afford a lawyer.

Unfortunately, many states around the country are not upholding this basic right, mostly due to budget constraints. But as we have said before, a lack of funds, especially in a country as wealthy as ours, is no excuse for denying basic rights.

A lawsuit has been filed in New York to force the state to address this issue within its criminal justice system. And yesterday, the U.S. Department of Justice, headed by Attorney General Eric Holder (who announced his intent to resign yesterday), submitted a document in the case asserting that

threadbare budgets and vast caseloads can “force even otherwise competent and well-intentioned public defenders into a position where they are, in effect, a lawyer in name only.”

(from the New York Times)

Is there anything I can do besides wait for a lawsuit to address the problem in my state?

It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to force the government to uphold the rights of its citizens, though many times it does. But rather than waiting around for a lawsuit, you can reach out to your state legislators and governor to let them know how you feel about this issue to ensure your state’s criminal justice system is working for everyone.


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