US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Defending the poor in our courtrooms and budgets

By Elizabeth Lefebvre | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

50 years ago the Supreme Court ruled a landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright that every criminal defendant who faces jail time deserve legal representation, even if they can’t afford it. This might seem like a no-brainer to us today, but does simply having a lawyer present make sure that justice is served?

An NPR article today suggests that the system put in place after Gideon v. Wainwright is failing. Says Norman Lefstein, a D.C.-area lawyer working for poor criminals: "[The right to legal representation] is a vital constitutional right. It distinguishes us as a country. I happen to believe that the quality of justice in our courts says a lot about the kind of society we are."

However, says The Atlantic reporting on the same story:

There are simply too many criminal cases, too few lawyers to handle them, too little in public defense budgets, and far too little political power for reformers seeking to make good on Gideon's promise. 

You can have a lawyer, but that lawyer is likely overworked, underpaid, and able to spend about five minutes with you before representing you. Does this mean that we are the kind of society who doesn’t value ensuring justice for all?

The Atlantic continues:

No one wants to pay for more public defenders. Or, better put, few people in political power care enough about the gross injustices being done to poor people to spend more money trying to ensure they receive adequate representation.

Talks of budget plans are resurfacing as this week both the Republicans and Democrats put forth proposals which once again will be an assessment of our nation’s moral priorities. As NPR notes: "When the Supreme Court ruled for Gideon, it didn't say anything about who would pay for lawyers for the poor, and those programs usually rest at the top of the chopping block for state lawmakers during times of belt-tightening."

Hopefully we as a nation will make decisions (and fund them accordingly) to ensure that rights and dignities of the most people possible are being protected. 

Flickr photo cc by wblj