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March 17, 2013

Public defense need remains

Imagine being arrested and charged for burglarizing a pool hall where $5 in change and a couple bottles of soda and beer are missing. You are taken to jail and go in front of a judge who sets bail you cannot afford to post because you are poor. You remain locked up until your trial. You want an attorney to represent you as you are facing 5 years in a Florida prison if you are convicted.

The judge denies your pleas for an attorney to represent you, stating that the right to an attorney at public expense only applies in death penalty cases. You prepare your defense for your upcoming trial as best you can from your jail cell. You’re going up against a seasoned prosecutor with many resources, including the police, at his disposal.

You have your trial and are found guilty. The court sentences you to 5 years in prison. End of story.

Thankfully not.

After starting his five-year sentence, Clarence Earl Gideon, from his prison cell, wrote (in pencil) a five-page petition to the United States Supreme Court explaining how he should have been appointed an attorney to defend him in his burglary case. The Supreme Court agreed unanimously with Gideon and on March 18, 1963, ordered he receive a new trial with the assistance of counsel at public expense.

Fifty years since the court’s decision, Gideon v. Wainwright remains one of the most significant cases in American jurisprudence. Requiring the states to provide an attorney for people who can’t afford to hire one, via the Sixth Amendment, is one of our Constitution’s shining principles and promises. Regardless of social status, wealth, skin color, citizenship or guilt, all people have that right.

Unfortunately, in some parts of the United States the right to an attorney is paid only lip service. In a country that leads the industrialized world for incarceration and where up to 90 percent of people charged with felonies can’t afford a lawyer, the true test in determining if the right to counsel is being fulfilled is: how effective is appointed counsel?

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