YourABA December 2011 Masthead

ABA indigent defense reforms to guide Justice Department, says Attorney General Holder

A diverse focus group of criminal justice experts convened by an American Bar Association committee has issued strategies for improving government systems that provide representation in criminal cases to people who cannot afford a lawyer.

"Access to effective assistance of counsel is a fundamental right" guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment and the Supreme Court's 1963 decision in Gideon v. Wainright, stated the focus group, which was convened by the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants. But "nearly 50 years after the landmark Gideon decision, its promise remains unfulfilled."

The standing committee—in collaboration with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers—received a U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance grant for the project, which resulted in the focus group's recommendations to the Justice Department.

Included in the group, which met Jan. 9, were 18 representatives of all branches of state government, prosecutors, defenders and leaders of indigent defense reform organizations from throughout the country. The group included Indiana University-Indianapolis law professor Norman Lefstein, whose ABA book on the public defender caseload crisis is available free of charge as a downloadable PDF or bound hard-copy at

Also attending the focus group meeting were Assistant U.S. Attorney General Laurie Robinson and other Justice Department representatives. The focus group said its findings are preliminary and that a comprehensive report would follow at a later date.

At the ABA Midyear Meeting Feb. 4, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that he had reviewed the group's recommendations.

"Together, this diverse group worked to develop concrete strategies for reforming our nation's indigent defense systems, and to identify actions that the Justice Department can take to help facilitate its work," Holder said. "Their findings … will undoubtedly guide reform efforts long into the future."

The recommendations, transmitted in a Jan. 31 letter to Holder from ABA President Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III, include suggestions for the Justice Department to endorse:

  • Caseload reductions by reclassifying petty, non-violent offenses;
  • Programs that ensure counsel are provided at initial appearances, which facilitate better, quicker and less costly outcomes;
  • Federal involvement in actions that support the right to counsel at the state and local level;
  • Consultation with local defense bars before law enforcement policies that increase caseloads are adopted; and
  • Integration of private defense bars and public defender systems to maintain manageable caseloads and broad support for indigent defense systems.

The report is available online here.

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