Nearly 50 years after the Supreme Court, in Gideon v. Wainwright, recognized the constitutional right to counsel for criminal defendants who lack the means to hire an attorney on their own, indigent defense systems in the United States remain in a state of crisis. Many states are simply unwilling to provide adequately funding to ensure those accused of crimes have competent defense counsel. Additionally, state systems often lack sufficient independence or oversight of indigent defense providers, undermining their effectiveness. This failure to provide constitutionally adequate legal counsel not only increases the risk of wrongful convictions and costly appeals, but also undermines the legitimacy of the criminal justice system by creating two systems of justice–one for people with means, and an inferior system for the poor.
The National Right to Counsel Committee’s 2009 report, Justice Denied: America’s Continuing Neglect of Our Constitutional Right to Counsel, sets out a road map for states to improve their indigent defense systems, and we actively promote the critical reforms necessary to achieve a truly fair criminal justice system for all.