John A. Steakely
Attorney John Steakley is a 1996 graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law. He began his career as the Special Prosecutor for Drug Crimes for a multi-county, multi-agency drug task force in Tennessee, where he represented the State of Tennessee in thousands of felony and misdemeanor cases in a 5-county judicial district.
Gideon Has Failed, Says NPR
NPR weighs in with their own doom-and-gloom take on the 50th Anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright:
Next week marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in which the justices unanimously ruled that defendants facing substantial jail time deserved legal representation in state courts, even if they couldn't afford to pay for it.
The ruling came in the case of Clarence Earl Gideon, a drifter convicted of breaking and entering [of a pool hall after closing] after he was forced to defend himself [in court]. His handwritten appeal made it to the high court, and the decision in his favor became a rallying cry for the idea of equal justice.
But a half-century after Gideon v. Wainwright, many lawyers say the system for providing defense attorneys for the poor is in crisis.
By "crisis", they mean "underfunded." They are using the 50th anniversary of the Gideon decision to point out the flaws in the system in a not-so-subtle appeal for more taxpayer funding. But more money is not the answer and never will be.
In a nutshell, the nation's public defenders are saying "we can't do our job because you taxpayers won't give us enough money." NPR, the ABA and the US Attorney General are just a few of the voices advancing this narrative. I think they are doing a long-term disservice to public defenders, though. First, taxpayers are tapped out. Consumer debt is high and we are years into the Obama Recession. Second, these are public defenders for people accused of crimes, not cops and teachers and firemen. Many taxpayers (unfairly) see these attorneys as the "bad guys" (or at least the lawyers for the "bad guys") and are unlikely to give these lawyers a cent more than they already do, even while opening their checkbooks for more teachers, cops and firemen (the perennial "good guys" of government funding). So while major groups are using the 50th anniversary of Gideon to call for more funding, I think it will fall on deaf ears. The result will be alot of loud public criticism of public defenders but no real effort to solve the problems. All the public will remember is the criticism.
Indigent defense is a government program like any other: If it works well, it won't get any additional taxpayer dollars next year. But if it can convince enough people that it's broken and "in crisis" then the taxpayer dollars will fall like rain. Failure is rewarded while success is ignored, as if often the case in government programs. It's the same mentality that keeps the UK's National Health Service (NHS) in a constant state of crisis with politicians promising an endless string of "overhauls" if taxpayers will spend just a little bit more than last year. It's the same mentality that causes our own government to spend the most money on the worst public schools while ignoring the good ones.
The people who work in these programs labor under the same perverse incentives as most other government workers: they get paid the same whether they win or lose, and regardless of how hard they try. It doesn't take long for that to crush the motivation out of even the most idealistic young lawyer, doctor, or teacher.
[Attorney] Norman Lefstein started working for poor criminal defendants in Washington, D.C., a few months after the Gideon ruling on March 18, 1963.
Lefstein [says] . . . he's troubled by what he sees and hears today, like a call he got from a defense lawyer for poor people in a Northeastern state.
"In my judgment, his caseload was absurd," says Lefstein, who's written widely on indigent defense issues. "I mean, just try to imagine simultaneously representing competently over 300 clients. And he was in an impossible situation."
Public Defender caseloads ARE absurd, but not always because they are underfunded. The system is abused by people who pretend to be indigent so that they can get a free attorney. Judges and prosecutors do not scrutinize applicants very much, perhaps because they know that the cases will flow more smoothly through the system when public defenders are too overloaded to give any one case much attention. The result is an overloaded system originally designed for a few and now being [ab]used by many, where well over 90% of defendant's plea guilty.
Those caseloads can have some pretty bad consequences, says University of Georgia law professor Erica Hashimoto.
"There are a lot of stories of what are called meet 'em and plead 'em lawyers — lawyers who show up at the courthouse and represent the defendant for about five minutes, where they tell the client, 'You have to plead guilty,' " Hashimoto says.
Those aren't just stories. That's reality. And it's reality not because the lawyers are bad lawyers. It's reality because the lawyers are overloaded from defending people who shouldn't qualify for a public defender. Then, AFTER the defendant pleads guilty to something he didn't do, his family calls private attorneys to clean up the mess. If the money is available to hire an attorney to clean up the mess, then the money was available to hire an attorney to avoid making a mess in the first place. The time to hire an attorney is the day you are arrested, not the day after you are convicted.
So if Clarence Earl Gideon were alive and arrested today, what would happen? There's a good chance that he would never meet nor talk to his public defender until his first day in court. At that meeting, the public defender would flip through his large box of files for that day, find Mr. Gideon's file, take a brief look at it, Mr. Gideon's criminal history, and then tell Mr. Gideon to plea guilty.
Yes, Gideon has failed.
UPDATE: Anthony Lewis, author of "Gideon's Trumpet" about the Gideon case, has died. He was 85.
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