The Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright considered whether the Sixth Amendment’s right to an attorney applied to state courts. In court, Gideon did not receive counsel and had to represent himself because he could not afford an attorney. The Supreme Court decided
“any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.”
That decision was in 1963, but even now people who cannot afford an attorney are not equally represented in court.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 60-90% of criminal defenders need public attorneys. These public defenders represent people who cannot afford to hire an attorney. Public defenders have to handle much larger caseloads than private lawyers, which prevent them from providing effective representation to all of their clients. Most states have guidelines that restrict the number of criminal cases that a public defender can work on. However, these restrictions are frequently bypassed and public defenders are given more cases than state guidelines allow. According to a NY Times article, public defenders have to practice triage in order to handle these heavy caseloads. They do this by prioritizing their limited resources into higher-level cases such as murder while lower-level cases do not receive as much attention.
A study conducted in the Missouri State Public Defender System found that defenders spent an average of nine hours to prepare their cases on serious felonies and two hours for misdemeanors. This is much less than the 47 hours called for felonies and 12 hours for misdemeanors.
How can we claim that we allow everyone a fair trial if people represented by public attorneys statistically receive less protection? Even today, the right to a lawyer heavily favors people who can afford an attorney over people who cannot. What do you think about this issue?