Although the American tradition of providing a zealous defense, even for unpopular defendants, goes back to John Adams, it was not until March 18, 1963, that the U.S. Supreme Court declared that Clarence Earl Gideon had not received a fair trial because he was too poor to afford counsel. Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 The ruling was momentous because it guaranteed the right to counsel to every person, regardless of economic or social status. Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Hugo Black declared, “In our adversary system of criminal justice, a person [hauled] into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to be an obvious truth…. lawyers in criminal court are necessities, not luxuries.”
Here is what the right to counsel means today: On February 10, 2016, George Perrot was released from prison after serving 30 years for a crime he did not commit. He got out because of a dedicated team of pro bono lawyers and public defenders that fought for justice, even though their client appeared to be guilty of a heinous crime. They were a team that stood up to a prosecutor who had engaged in what the court called egregious misconduct; a team that listened to him and exposed the junk science that helped lead to his conviction; a team that humanized him before a judge with the courage to correct a grave injustice. In the process, this dedicated team of advocates even brought a measure of vindication to the victim of the crime, who insisted from the outset that the police arrested the wrong man. In seeking justice for Mr. Perrot, these lawyers defended all of us from the misuse of forensic evidence, the abuse of governmental power, and an undermining of the public trust in our court system.
This is important because, popular culture aside, the majority of people in need of public defenders are not drug lords, murderers, or even dangerous. Rather, most indigent who are accused are homeless, have problems with substance use, are veterans with PTSD, or are struggling with mental illness. They are young people caught up in delinquency procedures because they have been underserved by their school systems. They are your friends, family, and neighbors charged with relatively minor, non-violent offenses, and are at little or no risk of chronic court involvement. However, without an effective attorney those involved in the court process – regardless of the severity of the alleged crime – are at great risk of losing housing, being excluded from school, losing their driver’s license, paying substantial fees and fines, being deported, being involuntarily confined to a mental health facility, or losing their children. This system continues the cycle of poverty that in particular affects urban communities of color. The modern public defender not only protects the legal rights of the accused, he or she also helps clients become productive citizens by getting them into school, setting them up in drug treatment, arranging for parenting classes or anger management, helping vets get housing and medical care, and so much more.
I have the privilege to serve as Chief Counsel of the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), the Massachusetts public defender agency. Every day I am reminded of how lucky I am to be able to work with the dedicated lawyers, social workers, investigators, and other professionals that make up the indigent defense bar in Massachusetts. These lawyers, many of whom are private attorneys who accept court appointments for very little money, dedicate themselves to advising and advocating on behalf of each and every client they are assigned. In reality, they are fighting for the right of all of us to live in a society in which everyone is treated fairly regardless of our wealth, race or social standing, regardless of our age or mental status, and regardless of what bad acts we have been accused of committing. Fairness is the most fundamental value underlying a democratic society and a healthy public defender system is a critical component of a fair and effective court system.