A Promise Worth Keeping: Restoring Fairness to America's Justice System

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 06:  Workers use shovels and brooms to remove a heavy mixture of snow and ice from the west front of t
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 06: Workers use shovels and brooms to remove a heavy mixture of snow and ice from the west front of the U.S. Supreme Court March 6, 2013 in Washington, DC. A late winter storm is expected to cover the Mid-Atlantic region after dropping almost a foot of snow across the the West and Midwest. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

"I went to law school to make a difference. I became a public defender to ensure poor people have access to the same justice as those with money. But I find myself spending my days processing people through a system that does not give them a chance." I hear this regularly from young lawyers who are a little less passionate than they used to be; a little less certain they can make a difference; on the verge of defeat at the hands of a system that pays mere lip service to our most important constitutional principles.

Every day I work with public defenders who struggle to represent the most vulnerable among us in the most challenging places. Marie was one of those lawyers. She graduated law school and joined the fledgling effort to reform public defense in Georgia. She wanted to help make equal justice a reality for the poor. But she, too, soon found herself feeling helpless in a broken system. In one year she handled nearly 900 cases. Marie estimated that if she worked 50 hours a week and never took a vacation, that left her just three hours with each client. She did not have the resources she needed to conduct basic investigations and test the reliability of forensic evidence. Watching so many people fall through the cracks was more than she could bear, and she eventually resigned.

This is not the criminal justice system she learned about in law school. But it is the only system the poor and vulnerable among us have.

Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court case that ruled that every accused person be afforded an attorney, regardless of his or her ability to pay. It was understood that the kind of lawyer provided could not depend on the wealth or poverty of the accused or there could be no equal justice.

But as we approach this milestone, most poor people rely on public defenders whose caseloads leave them precious little time with each client. Their lawyers are routinely denied resources necessary to prepare a defense that could potentially prove their innocence. They are often coerced into accepting guilty pleas to avoid draconian sentences. Over 95 percent will plead guilty. For most, a fair trial with a capable lawyer is not an option, as too many public defenders are reduced to processing their clients through a system that cares little about justice. How can we be so far from Gideon's promise?

Two decades after Gideon was decided, the Supreme Court validated a system of second class justice for the poor. In Strickland v. Washington, the Court created a new class of lawyer -- "incompetent yet constitutionally adequate" -- for the most vulnerable among us. Now states were free to provide incompetent lawyers, as long as the accused could not demonstrate they would have won with a competent lawyer. Since this is an impossible burden to meet, the Court has set an embarrassingly low bar and enabled a system in which lawyers have been unprepared, drug addicted, and even asleep for portions of the trial.

The results are devastating. America has five percent of the world population and 25 percent of its prison population. More than 2.2 million people are incarcerated. Innocent people are wrongly convicted. Poor people sit in jail unable to post bond. Families are torn apart and communities crippled.

As the founder of Gideon's Promise, a nonprofit committed to training and supporting public defenders in the most challenging environments, I work every day with courageous young public defenders who are asked to defend those the rest of us have forgotten, without the resources necessary to succeed. They are on the front lines of a battle to live up to our country's ideals of justice. And they need reinforcements.

Eighty percent of people accused of crimes in the country rely on public defenders. They fight daily to uphold our nation's most cherished values. Yet, while the federal government invests roughly a half a billion dollars a year to support overall criminal justice efforts at the state and local levels, most of that money goes to policing, prosecuting and incarceration, and less than one percent supports the defense function necessary to ensure a fair system.

Support for the right to counsel must be a higher priority and grants should be conditioned on states making a greater commitment to fulfilling this constitutional mandate. On this important anniversary, we should commit as a nation to finally giving lawyers for the poor the resources they need to win this battle.