One of the greatest challenges facing the criminal justice system is the need to balance the rights of accused criminals against society’s interest in imposing punishments on those convicted of crimes. This tension is illustrated by the debate over whether defendants have the right to be represented by an attorney.
Most Americans are familiar with the Miranda warning, which advises suspects of their rights that are guaranteed by the Fifth and Sixth Amendments: Criminal suspects have the right to refuse to answer questions from police; they have the right to an attorney; and if they cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for them at no charge. However, the right to a court-appointed attorney is relatively new. The federal government started providing court-appointed attorneys for felony defendants in the nineteenth century, and some states began appointing lawyers for indigent felony defendants in the early twentieth century. But in 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an attorney must be provided to all criminal defendants in state and federal cases. The case that changed American jurisprudence was Gideon v. Wainwright.
Clarence Earl Gideon was a homeless ex-convict with an eighth-grade education. He was arrested in 1961 in Panama City for breaking and entering into a pool hall, a felony under Florida law. At his trial, he asked the court to appoint him a lawyer, but the judge in his case ruled that state law only allowed court-appointed attorneys for capital offenses. Gideon was therefore forced to represent himself during his trial, and not surprisingly, he was convicted by a jury and sentenced to five years in a state penitentiary. While in prison, Gideon wrote a letter to the U.S. Supreme Court asking the Court to review his case, and the Court decided to settle the question of who was entitled to have a court-appointed lawyer. In Gideon, the court ruled that a defendant’s right to a fair trial should not depend on his or her wealth or education:
In our adversary system of criminal justice, 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. This seems to us to be an obvious truth. . . . Lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries.
The Supreme Court overturned Gideon’s conviction and ordered a new trial. At his second trial, Gideon was provided with a lawyer who obtained an acquittal for him. States are now required to provide attorneys for all criminal defendants.
It is left up to the states to determine how they will provide legal counsel for indigent defendants, however. Some states have established a public defender’s office, in which lawyers are paid by the state to defend poor defendants. Other states appoint a lawyer to act as the defendant’s lawyer from a pool of available attorneys. These lawyers may work on a pro bono basis (meaning they work without pay for the public good), or they may bill the state for their services. Still other lawyers work on a contract basis with the state, agreeing to take on indigent defense cases for a specified fee.
It has been well-documented that a few attorneys appointed to represent indigent defendants have been inexperienced, poorly trained, and have even fallen asleep during their clients’ trials. According to some Americans, these defendants are not experiencing a travesty of justice but—because they are guilty of the crime which they are accused of— are getting exactly what they deserve. Some critics even go so far as to suggest that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright is wrong. Don Stott, a free-lance writer, argues:
The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution says that, “In a criminal prosecution, the accused shall . . . have the assistance of counsel for his defense.” It does not say that the state shall pay for such, or that “counsel” shall be a collegeeducated lawyer. It says the accused shall have the counsel assist in their defense . . . not perform it.
Others believe that taxpayer dollars should not be used to pay for defense lawyers. These opponents maintain that defendants should be provided with the minimum assistance required by law. When high-profile, experienced lawyers are allowed to defend the accused at government expense, critics contend that taxpayers are essentially paying to let guilty criminals escape punishment.
Supporters of public-supported defense attorneys maintain, however, that providing indigent criminal defendants with the best possible lawyers and defense is essential to upholding the integrity of the American criminal justice system. According to John Wasowicz, a lawyer in Virginia, if indigent defendants are represented by incompetent attorneys, “people would be able to say that there are two kinds of justice: one for people with money, and one for those who don’t have the financial resources to mount a strong defense.” Furthermore, he asserts, the core belief of American jurisprudence is that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, and so all defendants are entitled to a rigorous defense. Providing indigent defendants with a competent defense lawyer helps to ensure that innocent persons will be acquitted. Permitting or even encouraging incompetent lawyers to represent poor defendants increases the likelihood that an innocent person will be convicted and imprisoned. It also increases the possibility that the conviction will be reversed on appeal based on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. Supporters also point out that if the defendant is found guilty, despite the best efforts of a competent defense lawyer, then it is less likely that an appeals court will find that an error has been made in the case and overturn the conviction. And a competent lawyer may be able to persuade the defendant to accept a plea bargain if the evidence against him or her is overwhelming. Wasowicz concludes, “Good court-appointed counsel does not jeopardize justice; it enhances it.”
Whether or not those accused of a crime should be vigorously defended by lawyers, and whether lawyers should even accept such a case in the first place goes to the heart of the issues in Criminal Justice: Opposing Viewpoints. The authors examine these topics and others in the following chapters: Does the Criminal Justice System Need Reform? Is the Prison System Effective? Should Sentencing Laws Be Reformed? What Rights Should Be a Part of the Criminal Justice System? As long as people continue to commit crimes, questions will remain about how to prosecute, sentence, and imprison them.
Did this raise a question for you?