Indigent Defense

The right to counsel, embodied in the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, is the primary safeguard of a defendant’s rights within the criminal justice system. Adequate representation ensures that all other rights – to be free from unlawful search and seizure, against self-incrimination, to confront witnesses, to a jury trial, etcetera – are protected. In 1963, the United States Supreme Court, in Gideon v. Wainwright, made clear that the right to counsel applies to every citizen, regardless of whether the defendants can afford to pay an attorney. Sadly, in the United States today, the right to counsel is not being enforced. Lack of standards, oversight and funding have led thousands of people to be processed without their right to counsel.

NACDL is committed to ensuring quality representation for all accused individuals and has set out to help reform inadequate state and local indigent defense systems through technical assistance, public education, advocacy, and litigation.

Gideon at 50 Project

A Three-Part Examination of Indigent Defense in America

Gideon_web_logoRationing Justice is a 50-state survey of assigned counsel rates that identifies the current hourly rates paid to private attorneys who represent the indigent in criminal cases as well as the maximum fee that can be earned by those attorneys. The ABA Ten Principles of a Public Delivery System calls for the active participation of the private bar in indigent defense, even in areas where the volume of cases is sufficiently high to warrant the establishment of a public defender's office. Private attorneys must be available to handle case where the public defender's office has a conflict and to handle cases when public defender caseloads become excessive. Without their participation, our nation's indigent defense systems cannot guarantee that all defendants will receive equal justice under the law.

Part II is a 50-State Survey of Financial Eligibility Guidelines for Assigned Counsel that documents how states decide who is “too poor” to hire a lawyer. The survey looks at how states define “indigency” and whether or not that definition is consistent with ABA standards for providing defense services. It identifies which states rely on the Federal Poverty Guidelines when determining eligibility for assigned counsel, and explains the origin of the Federal Poverty Guidelines and how they cannot accurately predict who is “too poor” to hire a lawyer. The survey then looks at the fees and costs imposed on supposedly indigent defendants who are assigned counsel. These include application fees, payable at the time a request for counsel is made, and reimbursement fees, payable at the conclusion of the case or over time. The report concludes that in adopting unduly restrictive eligibility criteria and other policies, too many states have been able to ignore the central premise of Gideon that “lawyers in criminal courts are luxuries, not necessities.”

Learn more about this project.

News Of Interest

"States Spend Less on Legal Defense for the Poor," by Joe Palazzolo, Wall Street Journal , July 17, 2014.

"Public defender may stop handling cases in municipal courts," by Kirk Brown, Anderson Independent Mail, July 7, 2014.

"N.Y. should defend the defenseless," by Corey Stoughton, Albany Times Union, July 1, 2014.

"NYCLU: Settlement reached with Ontario County over poor or indigent defendants," Associated Press, June 26, 2014.

"NYC funds public defender system for immigrants," by Deepti Hajela, Associated Press, June 26, 2014.

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