Fundamental rights in the criminal justice system are often denied or not fairly provided to people who cannot afford essential legal services. These legal services include attorneys and bail. People who cannot afford an attorney are represented by overworked public defenders who cannot provide effective protection as compared to private lawyers. People unable to pay bail or other court fees are often sent to jail. The US Constitution’s Bill of Rights requires the criminal justice system to treat every defendant fairly by administering punishment to each offender through a fair trial. However, the justice system does not treat every defendant fairly and holds a bias against people who cannot afford legal services.
The criminal justice system does not treat defendants equally when providing the assistance of counsel. A principal right in the US Constitution is the right to an attorney. The Sixth Amendment states, “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” In the past, this right was often not provided to people who were unable to afford an attorney. However, in the case Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court required state courts to appoint attorneys for defendants who could not afford to retain counsel on their own. These appointed attorneys are called public defenders. Even though Gideon v. Wainwright removed bias in the court system by allowing people unable to afford a lawyer counsel in court, there still is a significant difference in the quality of protection. According to an article from the New York Times, public defenders are suffering from so many budget cuts and growing caseloads that offices in several states are refusing to take more cases or are suing to limit them because defendants’ rights to counsel are being undermined. The article found that from 2005-2008, “the average number of felony cases handled by each lawyer in a year has climbed to close to 500, from 367” and “caseloads for lawyers assigned to misdemeanor cases have risen to 2,225 from 1,380.” This large increase in caseloads for public defenders raises the question of whether public defenders can provide equal protection compared to private lawyers. There are several limiting factors that give a disadvantage to public defenders. One of the major limitations is that you do not get to select your own attorney. Instead of being able to interview a handful of lawyers to find the best one, you are simply assigned one public defender. Additionally, public defenders have less time on each case. According to recommendations based on the National Advisory Council on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, public defenders receive way more cases than recommended and have much less time to handle each case than recommended. Although all public defenders are qualified lawyers who have passed the Bar exam in their state, these two limitations cause public defenders to not be as effective as private lawyers. Appointing public defenders that are not as effective as private lawyers causes unequal treatment between people who cannot afford a lawyer and are appointed a public defender and people who can afford a private lawyer. The criminal justice system favors people who can afford to pay for their own attorney because they are more likely to avoid being sentenced.
The criminal justice system also does not treat defendants equally in regards to paying bail. People who cannot afford to pay bail are often detained in jail. According to the New Jersey Jail Population Analysis, “38.5% of the total [prison] population, had an option to post bail but were held in custody solely due to their inability to meet the terms of bail.” This means that many of the inmates were not serving an actual jail sentence but instead waiting for their trial. These “pretrial detainees” have to suffer through these jail conditions for months until their trials. The punishment of having to serve jail time can be exacerbated by circumstances such as not being able to work and earn money for an extended period of time and possibly being fired because of it. Because of this, defendants are more likely to plead guilty if the chance of acquittal is low or if the expected sentence on a plea bargain is less than the jail time that would be served before the trial. However, people who are able to pay bail are able to avoid jail time before their trial. People should be put in pretrial detention if they have a propensity to run away before their trial or are a risk for causing harm to the public. Instead, pretrial detentions usually ignore these risks and instead mainly put people too poor to pay bail in jail regardless of their risk level. According to the Justice Policy Institute, “pretrial detention has a documented negative impact on pretrial and case outcomes.” People who are held pretrial are more likely to receive a sentence of incarceration and be sentences longer than those released pretrial. When held in jail, the defendant is unable to work with their counsel to prepare the defense, gather witness and other perform other activities need to present a strong case in court. The establishment of bail and pretrial detention does not treat people equally under the law because there is an economic bias in which people who cannot afford bail receive more punishment than people who can afford it.
Poor people are also discriminated against in the area of court fees. States are increasingly charging defendants court fees in order to finance their criminal justice systems. Defendants are charged a variety of fees. Defendants have to pay fees for legal services that should be free. For example, public defenders are lawyers given to defendants who cannot afford an attorney. Adding a court fee onto the public defender defeats the purpose of appointing attorneys to people who cannot afford counsel on their own. Numerous court fees can add up to thousands of dollars. The problem arises if the defendant fails to pay these fails. If the defendant is unable to pay these fees, he or she is sent to jail. According an article by NPR, cities “violate the rights of poor residents by issuing arrest warrants when people fail to pay court fines and fees, without first considering whether they are too impoverished.” This contradicts the outlawing of debtors prisons in the United States almost 200 years ago. It also goes against the Supreme Court ruling in 1983 in the case Bearden v. Georgia, which established that judges cannot send people to jail because they are too poor to pay court fines. Similar to the situation with public defenders, the criminal justice system has not entirely implemented the Supreme Court ruling. A 4-month study in 2013 of jail records obtained found that about a quarter of the people in jail for misdemeanor were there because they did not pay their court fines. Miriam Aukerman, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said “it’s not that it’s wrong to charge people money as a way to punish them, but there have to be alternatives for people who can’t pay.” The alternative cannot be incarceration for the poor and payment for the rich because this favors people who can afford to pay court fees. The idea that people who cannot afford to pay court fees go to jail while people who can afford to pay do not challenges the principle of the criminal justice system that people are treated alike regardless of whether they are rich or poor.
The criminal justice system does not treat every defendant equally because it denies principle legal services such as attorneys from people who cannot afford them. Furthermore, the justice system incarcerates people who cannot pay bail or court fees while people who can afford them do not go to jail. This vastly differing treatment of defendants based on ability to pay for legal services is unconstitutional and goes against the basic principle of the criminal justice system in which each defendant should receive a fair trial decided only by the law and the evidence provided. As public defenders struggle with limited resources and heavy caseloads due to budget cuts and states continue to increase court fees, defendants will still be unfairly treated within the criminal justice system.