“America’s dirty little secret is that thousands of people go to jail without ever talking to a lawyer.”
That statement by Jon Mosher, deputy director of the nonprofit Sixth Amendment Center, is less accurate today than it was a few weeks ago. The reason: The “dirty little secret” is a secret no more. It was exposed in a groundbreaking series of investigative stories, "Broken Defense,” featured by Lee Enterprises newspapers and websites across the West.
The reporting effort, led by Emily Hamer, a reporter with Lee’s west region Public Service Reporting Team, laid bare the essential facts and underlying causes of our widely dysfunctional public defender system, which routinely denies thousands of defendants their right to counsel enshrined in the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The current status of our system of public defense is “a national embarrassment,” says civil rights lawyer and reform advocate Stephen Hanlon. This series proved it.
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The problem: There’s not enough money allocated to providing that constitutional right to counsel, and there are simply too many cases. That results in ineffective representation — when public defenders have crushing caseloads, many of their clients do not get the defense they deserve.
While failures of public defense in high-profile cases like capital murder have been well-documented, this series aimed a spotlight at a far less understood and much more pervasive violation of civil liberties — the thousands of defendants every year accused of misdemeanors who are processed through the system, some of them serving jail time, without ever even speaking with a defense attorney.
The solutions lie both in increasing funding for public defense and being more selective about who gets charged in the first place.
Progress must be made on both fronts.
Clogging the criminal justice system with petty misdemeanors, particularly those recognized as non-violent and “victimless,” certainly contributes to the problem. So does being less willing to appropriate funds for public defense than for prosecutions.
“The legal profession is starting to come to terms with this problem,” Hanlon says. "We’re gonna need the governors and state legislators … and Congress (to) step up and address this problem."
Dictatorships and other authoritarian regimes dispense so-called justice without benefit of counsel. It’s not a good look for the United States, which prides itself on a system that guarantees both criminal justice and human rights.
As the defense bar and local governments await the release of documented workload standards for public defenders, expected next month, our lawmakers need to come to grips with this “dirty little secret” and take steps to end it once and for all.