Society / Justice and Law

Justice for the Poor

Written by Katherine Hedland Hansen, School of Law

October 8, 2013

Sullivan Hall - Seattle U's School of Law

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The DOJ awards a grant for law school's Defender Initiative to tackle public defense crisis. 

The Defender Initiative at Seattle University School of Law and The Sixth Amendment Center in Boston have been awarded a $450,000 grant from the United States Department of Justice to continue their efforts to respond to the crisis in the public defense system.

With an East Coast and West Coast presence, the partnership is uniquely situated to respond quickly to struggling jurisdictions to provide timely technical assistance in identifying and rectifying issues that prevent a poor person from receiving a constitutionally adequate defense. Over the two-year grant cycle, the partners will provide technical assistance to a number of jurisdictions, including evaluating the health of the indigent defense systems in Utah and Mississippi.

The Defender Initiative is part of the law school's Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality and is  directed by Robert Boruchowitz, (above) one of the country's foremost authorities on public defense. It  is an unusual law school-based project aimed at providing better representation for people accused of crimes and facing loss of their liberty in juvenile and other court proceedings and in the process increase fairness in and respect for the courts. The project works to improve public defense representation for thousands of people in Washington and provide models for application in other states. It has worked in Kentucky, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Idaho in partnership with national and local organizations.

The Sixth Amendment Center (6AC) is a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization that seeks to ensure that no person faces potential time in jail without first having the aid of a lawyer with the time, ability and resources to present an effective defense.

"When an innocent person is sent to prison because the lawyer lacks the time, training and resources to properly investigate the case, the true perpetrator of the crime is left to wreak havoc on public safety," said David Carroll, executive director of the Sixth Amendment Center. 

DOJ announced the grant to the two organizations as part of a program called Answering Gideon's Call: National Assistance To Improve the Effectiveness of Right to Counsel Services. The grant is designed to improve the quality of state-level public defense services in the United States consistent with the American Bar Association's Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System. The Ten Principles  detail the broad structures and policies that are critical to any healthy, minimally functioning indigent defense system, including systemic safeguards to ensure that judges do not unduly influence the defense, courts appoint attorneys early enough in the case to be effective, and attorneys' workloads are controlled to ensure they have the time to be effective.

Attorney General Eric Holder called the ABA Ten Principles the "basic building blocks of a well-functioning public defense system." He has concluded that the country's public defense systems still exist in a "state of crisis," 50 years after the  U.S. Supreme Court declared it an "obvious truth" that poor people facing a loss of liberty in a criminal proceeding cannot receive a fair trial unless a lawyer is provided to them.

"If a case is important enough to prosecute, it is important enough to defend," Boruchowitz said. "Defenders need the resources and training to represent the millions of accused people across the country."

In criminal courtrooms across America, poor people find themselves among dozens or even hundreds of defendants all vying for the attention of a single defender at the same time. Too often, the attorney appointed to represent them is unqualified, untrained, financially conflicted and beholden to the judge presiding in the case. This situation is intensified by the fact that tens of thousands of poor people are sent to jail every year without ever having spoken to a lawyer, a particular interest to the Defender Initiative.

"Hundreds of thousands of people each year plead guilty without ever talking with a lawyer," Boruchowitz said. "Many courts accept guilty pleas from people who do not understand that they could have a lawyer to help them negotiate a resolution of their case and advise them whether the prosecution's offer makes sense. Often defendants are encouraged to talk with the prosecutor about their case without ever having the advice of a defender. Even innocent people can be intimidated into pleading guilty to something they did not do."

Although such "'no counsel courts" generally occur in the nation's misdemeanors courts, the consequences of even minor convictions can be great on both the defendant and the overall criminal justice system.  Utah and Mississippi are among only seven states that do not contribute any money for non-capital, trial-level right to counsel services (Arizona, California, Idaho, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota are the others). Although a state may delegate constitutional responsibilities to local government, a state must guarantee that local governments are not only able to provide such services but that they are in fact doing so. None of these states currently have such mechanisms for evaluating the effectiveness of their county-based public defense systems.

Visit Seattle Times for an article on the law school's grant.

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