Criminal Justice Section  


Criminal Justice Magazine
Spring 2001
Volume 16, Issue 1

Indigent Defense

By Terry Brooks and Shubhangi Deoras

Historic Summits

Georgia: On November 9, 2000, in Atlanta, the State Bar of Georgia, along with the state's four accredited law schools, sponsored a symposium to explore collaborative methods for improving the delivery of indigent defense services. Defense lawyers, prosecutors, judges, and legislators were among those invited to attend this event, which was titled "Developing a Statewide Vision of Indigent Defense in Georgia: Three Branches of Government, Three Roots of Support." Featured speakers included government officials, judges, civil rights activists, prosecutors, defenders, and academicians from across the nation.

According to C. Wilson DuBose, chair of the State Bar of Georgia's Indigent Defense Committee, the inspiration to convene a statewide symposium on indigent defense came from attending the U.S. Department of Justice's (DOJ) National Symposium on Indigent Defense in June 2000. In addition to DuBose, members of the planning committee for the Georgia symposium included: Stephen B. Bright, director of the Southern Center for Human Rights; Flora B. Devine, chair of the Georgia Indigent Defense Council; C. Andrew Fuller, chair of the Council of Superior Court Judges Indigent Defense Committee; L. Tom Gunnels, Jr., district court administrator for the 10th Administrative Judicial District; Robert E. Keller, district attorney for Clayton County; Vernon S. Pitts, public defender for Fulton County; Judith Cramer, district court administrator for the 5th Judicial Administrative District; James F. Grubiak, general counsel for the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia; Paul L. Howard, district attorney for Fulton County; Michael Mears, multicounty public defender; Deborah J. Poole, staff attorney for the Georgia Justice Project; and Michael B. Shapiro, executive director of the Georgia Indigent Defense Council.

Throughout the symposium speakers emphasized the need for systemic improvements in the delivery of indigent defense services. The Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights released a report indicating that 80 percent of those charged with crimes in Georgia cannot afford a defense lawyer. According to this report, many indigent defendants languish in jail for months without seeing a lawyer, and some never receive representation.

Several speakers called for increased state funding and oversight of indigent defense services, acknowledging that many of Georgia's indigent defense problems stem from a lack of resources. Georgia currently spends $40 million annually on indigent defense, a relatively low number compared to states with similar populations. Of this total, the state government contributes roughly 12 percent while the counties contribute the remaining 88percent.

The symposium concluded with remarks from Chief Justice Robert Benham of the Georgia Supreme Court, who announced plans to form a task force that will study these problems and recommend ways to improve the indigent defense system. This task force will be aided by the ABA State Commissions Project, a joint project between the ABA's Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants (SCLAID) and the DOJ's Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) that provides technical assistance in the formation of state indigent defense oversight commissions.

For C. Wilson DuBose, chair of the State Bar of Georgia's Indigent Defense Committee, the highlight of the symposium was that it brought stakeholders together to begin the dialogue on how to improve indigent defense in Georgia. "People of diverse views came away from this conference with a greater appreciation of the roles people play in providing indigent defense services and the problems people perceive in the system," he said. "This will help us to come to some consensus regarding the steps that must be taken to ensure that every indigent defendant in Georgia receives quality representation."

Texas: From December 7-8, 2000, the State Bar of Texas and cosponsors that included the BJA, SCLAID, Texas Center for the Judiciary, Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, and Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, convened "A Symposium on Criminal Indigent Defense in Texas" in Austin, Texas. In addition to defense attorneys, prosecutors, and judges from around the state, attendees at the Texas symposium included Texas Supreme Court justices, members of the Texas legislature, representatives from the Texas governor's office, representatives from the state's attorney general's office, and judges from the court of criminal appeals.

According to Michael Moore, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin and a member of the State Bar of Texas's Committee on Legal Services to the Poor in Criminal Matters, the idea to hold a statewide educational conference on indigent defense first came up in 1997. At that time, the committee was conducting a study on indigent defense in Texas, which included surveys of defense lawyers, prosecutors, and judges throughout the state. The results of these surveys revealed a tremendous variety in the types and quality of the indigent defense programs provided by the state's 254 counties. The committee realized that it needed to share the results of these surveys with a larger audience and to bring in experts from outside the state in order to gain insight on how to improve the indigent defense system.

The momentum gained from last year's national symposium and from recent attention focused on the Texas criminal justice system provided the necessary window of opportunity for the State Bar of Texas to organize and cosponsor the statewide indigent defense symposium in December. Panel discussions focused on broad themes, including (1) ideal indigent criminal defense systems; (2) the need for timeliness and independence in the appointment process; (3) the need for appropriate support services; (4) the economics of representing indigent defendants; (5) the death penalty and indigent representation; and (6) an assessment of various options for improving the system.

Each panel featured the views of a speaker of national prominence and included observations from state legislators, judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and county officials throughout Texas. Among the speakers were Anthony Lewis, New York Times columnist and author of Gideon's Trumpet; Stephen Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights; Norman Lefstein, dean of the Indiana University School of Law; Robert Spangenberg of The Spangenberg Group; Peter Neufeld of the Innocence Project; Scott Wallace of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association; David I. Bruck of the Federal Death Penalty Resource Center; and Adele Bernhard of Pace University Law School.

Norman Lefstein, chair of SCLAID's Indigent Defense Subcommittee and a former chair of the ABA Criminal Justice Section, had the opportunity to speak at both the Georgia and Texas indigent defense symposiums. According to Lefstein, the recent conferences "reflect the strong interest of persons in both states who are working tirelessly to achieve significant improvements in their indigent defense systems. While there is no single formula for achieving change, a statewide program on indigent defense is often the most important technique for bringing all of the parties together and getting everyone to focus simultaneously on the issues."

Terry Brooks is staff counsel for the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants. He is also a contributing editor to Criminal Justice magazine. Shubhangi Deoras is assistant committee counsel.

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