Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Helping the Poor in the Criminal Justice System

Image from The Constitution Project
One of the focuses of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative's work is helping the poor in the United States criminal justice system. Stevenson has asserted that in our current criminal justice system wealthy people fair better than poor people. The Constitution Project, a non-profit organization that works to build bipartisan consensus on significant constitutional and legal questions, explores this disparity in their film Defending Gideon.

In the film, the 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright case is highlighted. As a result of the case the United States Supreme Court ruled that states are required to provide counsel in criminal cases when defendants are unable to pay. According to Defending Gideon, 80% of people accused of a crime today cannot afford a lawyer. However the law is not perfect.  As was pointed out by Huntsville Times columnist, Stephen Stetson, in an editorial: "Federal law requires the states to provide attorneys for the poor, but it doesn't specify how." What this means is that all states are not created equal when it comes to appointing lawyers to defendants. In the film, Bryan Stevenson explains the problem this way:
 Rights and even court decisions don't necessarily turn into realities for the people who are the intended beneficiaries, without implementation.
He further points out that problems with implementation are often structural. Some examples he points out are some states have too many cases, but not enough resources, some states appoint lawyers but don't give lawyers adequate compensation so the lawyers are less able to prepare an adequate defense, and some states hire contract lawyers where the state bids on who will do the most cases for the least amount of money. Stevenson and The Constitution Project argue that these kinds of systems are flawed and disadvantage the poor.

To watch Defending Gideon click here.
To learn more about the Constitution Project click here.
To read Stephen Stetson's Huntsville Times editorial click here.

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