Reprinted from the SF Examiner, February 18, 2005

By Jeff Adachi

Last week, the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants published an extensive report on the quality of legal representation for the poor in criminal cases. The report exposes an underbelly of the justice system that is rarely seen on television shows like “Law and Order.” Based on testimony from public hearings from throughout the United States, the ABA committee found that “thousands of people are processed through America’s courts every year either with no lawyer at all or with a lawyer who does not have the time, resources or in some cases the inclination to provide effective representation.”

The report describes horrendous examples of incompetent lawyering: a two-day death penalty trial in which the court-appointed lawyer failed to make a single objection or offer any mitigating evidence; Mississippi’s practice of pleading 42 percent of all defendants guilty at their first appearance; and Alabama’s “assembly line” justice, where defendants line up and plead guilty without consulting a lawyer. And the list goes on. It is no wonder that 154 people later cleared by DNA evidence collectively served more than 1,800 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.

According to the report, the real culprit is insufficient funding and resources. Forty years ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared that a poor person had a right to a lawyer, it left the responsibility of providing indigent defense to individual states and counties, who failed to adequately fund defender offices. In California, $60 is spent on indigent defense for every $100 allotted to prosecutors. The lack of funding translates into lack of support services, training and investigation, excessive caseloads, and too little time spent meeting with clients and preparing cases for trial.

Even in San Francisco, where we have an elected public defender and strong criminal defense bar, we have a long way to go. The office became computerized just five years ago, and until two years ago it had only one paralegal to assist 90 lawyers. Public defenders work 65-hour weeks and handle two to three times the number of cases handled by a private lawyer. Budget cuts constantly threaten the office’s ability to adequately represent the 23,000 people it is assigned to assist each year.

The report points to the need for statewide oversight of indigent defense services to ensure quality representation and accountability. The lack of such oversight has resulted in a system “in which justice for the poor is unpredictable and subject to local political and budget pressures.” Reform efforts and lawsuits challenging chronic underfunding of defender offices have begun to reverse this shameful trend. Collaborations between bar associations, judges and lawyers have been successful in advocating for increased funding of defender agencies.

However, only time will tell if America’s promise of equal justice will ever be truly realized. When we fail to provide a proper defense to the poor, the integrity and the legitimacy of our entire criminal justice system is called into question.

Jeff Adachi is the San Francisco public defender and a member of the ABA’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants.


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