In Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court of the United States refers to lawyers in criminal cases as necessities rather than luxuries. That is because without counsel the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment’s promise to a fair trial is broken.
Gideon requires that states provide defense attorneys for defendants who cannot afford to hire their own attorney. The right to counsel is not simply the presence of a lawyer, but one that provides the defendant with meaningful assistance. This includes representation at pretrial events and an adequate defense at trial.
Unfortunately, the public defender systems in many states fail to fulfill these constitutional requirements.
Since the statewide expansion of Missouri’s public defender system in 1989, the Missouri State Public Defenders (MSPD), has received at least 10 independent evaluations that warned state officials of constitutional violations.
The warnings were ignored for nearly three decades, until the right to counsel became a constitutional crisis in Missouri.
That’s why we sued.
Missouri’s public defender system is underfunded, understaffed, and overworked.
The public defender’s office receives less than one of one percent of the state’s general revenue for funding. Missouri ranks 49 out of 50 for sufficient public defense state funding. The public defender’s office does not have the resources necessary for meaningful representation of their clients.
The attorneys are unable to provide meaningful effort to ensure their defendants are effectively represented with a fair trial.
The American Bar Association sets minimum requirements for the amount of time lawyers should invest in case preparation to guarantee clients have ethical and adequate representation.
Only three percent of cases are met with these minimum number of hours for constitutional representation. Public defenders often do not have the opportunity to meet with their clients before their trial to discuss potential witnesses, exculpatory evidence, plea negotiations, or trial strategy.
That’s because there are nearly 112,000 cases currently within Missouri’s public defender system and only 370 lawyers. Every attorney has hundreds of cases.
Every public defender would have to work more than 24 hours a day, every day of the year, to meet the minimum guidelines required for their cases in Missouri.
Being poor and unable to afford an attorney isn’t a crime. If we believe in justice, we must change our justice system.