What would change if everyone, no matter their income, got the minimum that all people deserve: someone with the time, resources, and training to defend them effectively in court?
In the past few decades, new initiatives to refashion our criminal legal system in a fairer and more equitable way have taken root around the country. Community prevention programs stop the spread of gun violence with mentorship and support, instead of relying on policing and jail; community courts link people to resources they struggle to access; and reentry programs support people returning from prison to get back on their feet.
But what if there’s another remedy to the system’s widespread inequalities, one that too often gets overlooked?
As Center practitioners Lisa Bailey Vavonese and Alysha Hall ask in our new policy brief: “What if public defenders are the answer hiding in plain sight?”
It was sixty years ago that the Supreme Court ruled, in Gideon v. Wainwright, that anyone facing the threat of incarceration has a right to an attorney, regardless of their ability to pay. Yet the people charged with upholding this right are too often underfunded, overburdened, and left without adequate training, compromising their ability to be effective advocates.
What would change if everyone, no matter their income, actually got the minimum that all people deserve: someone with the time, resources, and training to defend them effectively in court? It would mean a more equitable system than the one we have today—one that, in all likelihood, would send far fewer low-income people and people of color to jail.
Strong public defense is also essential to long-term public safety. When people are held in jail simply because they can’t afford strong representation in court, the chances of them coming into contact with the system again may actually increase—a symptom of the fact that prosecution and jail often compound the problems that bring people into court in the first place.
Our new policy brief looks at public defenders and others around the country who, despite all obstacles, are still pushing the needle to make the promise of Gideon a reality. Public defenders in Santa Clara County, California, are meeting with people held in jail to start building a case for their release. In South Dakota, legislators have worked to fill “legal deserts” by offering student loan repayments to attorneys who practice in rural areas for at least five years. Across the country, a more holistic approach to public defense has also started to take root, one that goes beyond the courtroom to address the variety of needs that many people in the legal system struggle to meet.
At the Center, we advise jurisdictions across the United States on how they can better uphold Sixth Amendment protections—constitutional rights for people accused of crimes—even given their limited resources. In partnership with the Bureau of Justice Assistance, we help people working in the legal system and other stakeholders to address trial delays, barriers to accessing counsel, and other issues that stand in the way of fully realizing all people’s right to a genuinely fair trial.
The report ends with a simple call to imagination: “What is the true potential for criminal legal system reform if we were to center public defense representation?” Even as we encourage and celebrate new, better ways of responding to crime and keeping communities safe, we can’t afford to overlook one of the most powerful tools at our disposal for keeping people out of jail and in the care of their communities: the simple power of public defense.
- New report and summary: "The Failure of Gideon and the Promise of Public Defense"
- The Sixth Amendment Initiative
- New Thinking podcast: "Gideon at 60: The Unfunded Mandate"