January 07, 2015 Articles

Civil Rights Implications Arising from Crime of "Indigence"

Members of the bar must recognize the unjust nature of laws that criminalize or punish with increased severity based on one's indigent status and to take action where we find such laws.

By David Schoen – January 7, 2015

“Providing equal justice for poor and rich, weak and powerful alike is an age-old problem. People have never ceased to hope and strive to move closer to that goal.” Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12, 16, 76 S. Ct. 585, 100 L.Ed. 891 (1956).

Sixth Amendment Issues Surrounding Indigence 
A great deal has been written in all sorts of forums about the imbalance in the degree and quality of justice criminal defendants attain, depending on their economic means. Exampleafter example is given about the wealthy defendant with a “dream team” who “walked” in contrast to the indigent capital defendant whose lawyer failed to investigate or prepare his or her case, missing complete defenses to the charges or important mitigation evidence or who fell asleep at trial, if he or she showed up at all.

There is no question that the quality of a criminal defendant’s counsel and the ability to obtain other defense resources bears directly on his or her ability to defend himself or herself from the time of arrest through the full appeal process. Through the years there have been several watershed events from the courts and legislatures that have had an impact on addressing this imbalance, with at least some limited success. E.g.Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963) (indigent criminal defendant’s right to counsel); Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68 (1985) (indigent criminal defendant’s right to defense psychiatrist; necessary defense resources); Criminal Justice Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3006A (adequate representation of defendants).

The focus for both criticism and remedy directed toward the inequality between wealthy and indigent criminal defendants most often is based on the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the right to effective assistance of trial and appellate counsel, for “[O]f all the rights that an accused person has, the right to be represented by counsel is by far the most pervasive, for it affects his ability to assert any other rights he might have.” United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648, 654 (1984).

It is vitally important that remedies addressing the needs and rights of indigent defendants to effective counsel and to defense resources that help ensure some modicum of a fair trial continue as we forever strive toward the goal enunciated in Griffin v. Illinois. However, the Sixth Amendment-related deficiencies in our criminal justice system and Sixth Amendment analysis have their limitations and this approach does not always target the full extent of the imbalance or provide the appropriate remedy. See, Lauren Sudeall Lucas, “Reclaiming Equality to Reframe Indigent Defense Reform,” 97 Minn. L. Rev. 1197 (April  2013).

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