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December 02, 2015 Articles

Overworked and Underfunded: A Fair Trial Issue for Indigent Defendants

By Lori Mullins

In Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), the Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment's guarantee of counsel to an indigent defendant is a fundamental right essential to a fair trial. Some 50 years later, the issue has become whether indigent clients will be appointed competent counsel to represent them given the lack of adequate funding in public defender offices.

In the recent Washington Post opinion article titled "I'm a Public Defender. It's Impossible for Me to Do a Good Job Representing My Clients," Tina Peng writes about how in 2014 she worked on over 300 felony cases—double what the American Bar Association recommends. Her story is one shared by many public defenders in densely populated areas throughout the country. In California, for example, while the state recommends 150 felonies per year, the average Fresno public defender handles 1,000 felonies per year.

Civil rights groups are attempting to take a stand through lawsuits. In 2007, the New York Civil Liberties Union successfully sued the State of New York, arguing that the inadequate funding of public defenders' offices violates indigent defendants' right to counsel. Since the win in New York, other states are following suit.

On July 14, 2015, in Phillips v. California, No. 15 CE CG 02201 (Cal. Super. Ct.), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit against Fresno County and the State of California, alleging similar facts and claiming that the underfunding of public defenders' offices violates the right to counsel, as well as rights to a speedy trial, due process, and equal protection. In 2008, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors began issuing budget cuts that reduced the public defender's office staff by more than half. In Phillips, the ACLU alleges that this loss of funding has caused some indigent defendants to be wrongfully convicted or to suffer unnecessary or prolonged pretrial detention, and in other cases has resulted in inappropriate guilty pleas, waivers of important rights, and harsher sentences. The ACLU argues that the right to appointed counsel and adequate legal representation for indigent criminal defendants imposes a duty on states to operate a public defense system that provides adequate assistance of counsel to indigent persons charged with crimes, and that Fresno County and the State of California have breached this duty by failing to adequately fund and oversee the Fresno County Public Defender's Office.

Closer adherence to existing state and county standards may provide a solution. California State Bar guidelines specify that "[i]ndigent defense providers should enjoy parity . . . with prosecutors," and the Fresno County Board of Supervisors has agreed on a 2:3 ratio of public defenders to district attorneys. However, the Fresno County Public Defender's and District Attorney's Offices, by comparison, have a public defender/district attorney ratio of 61 percent. Even Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp has agreed that the disparity between offices and the underfunding of the public defender's office is a problem.

The underfunding of public defenders' offices also affects racial inequality. In Fresno County, racial minorities make up about 57 percent of the population, while they represent over 69 percent of all arrests in the county. In an official press release by the ACLU, Novella Coleman, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, explains:

Because of racial profiling, people of color are more likely to be targeted for arrest and prosecution . . . . The severe underfunding of the public defender's office, which serves many people of color, is just another manifestation of the racial bias inherent at every stage of our criminal justice system—from the moment of arrest, to charging decisions, to bail determinations, to selection of jury members, and to verdicts and sentencing.

Press Release, ACLU, Tens of Thousands Go Without Legal Representation That the Constitution Guarantees (July 15, 2015).

As Phillips works its way through the court system, it is clear that not having sufficient resources or enough public defenders disproportionally affects racial minorities. Counties and states should not wait for the courts to tell them what they already know: public defenders need more resources in order to maintain the integrity of the Sixth Amendment.

For more information regarding the Phillips v. California case, see

Keywords: litigation, minority trial lawyer, minorities, Sixth Amendment, fair trial, indigent defendants, public defenders, underfunding

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