ABA President James R. Silkenat, describing the nation’s indigent defense system as “in crisis,” expressed the ABA’s support this month for the creation of a National Commission on Indigent Defense.
“The ABA has been pleased and is grateful for the ongoing dialogue between the Department of Justice and the indigent defense community, as well as for the steps the Department has taken to address the ongoing crisis in indigent defense systems,” Silkenat wrote in an Oct. 15 letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. “We believe that the creation of a commission…will help the criminal justice system do more than simply commemorate the passing of time” since the landmark 1963 ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright, Silkenat added. The Gideon ruling, which held that the federal and state courts are constitutionally required under the Sixth and Fourteenth amendments to provide counsel to indigent defendants, reached its 50th anniversary this year.
He also emphasized the importance of upholding the constitutional obligations as a country to provide legal counsel to those unable to access or afford it. “We as a nation of laws have not kept the promise of Gideon, that the right of counsel is fundamental and essential to a fair trial,” Silkenat said.
He noted that in February 2013 the ABA House of Delegates adopted policy to encourage Congress to create a federally-funded, independent Center for Indigent Defense Services. The purpose of such a center, according to the policy, would be to aid in providing “effective assistance of counsel for the defense of the indigent accused in criminal, juvenile and civil commitment proceedings,” at the state, local, tribal and territorial levels.
“The proposed commission may be but an interim step toward the establishment of a national center for indigent defense,” Silkenat said. “However, the journey toward equal justice for all must begin somewhere.”
He offered some advice regarding the mission and function of the proposed commission, emphasizing that the commission should work quickly and efficiently under a strict deadline, have a clearly defined mission, and look at all defender systems. He said that the commission should not retrace the steps of numerous blue-ribbon panels that have sufficiently documented the persistent problem in fulfilling the constitutional indigent defense mandate but should “focus on solutions and set goals for achieving them.”
“The ABA stands ready to assist, and to bring to the table extensive experience and expertise in the area of indigent defense,” Silkenat said.