Criminal Justice Section  


Criminal Justice Magazine
Winter 2003
Volume 17 Issue 4

Indigent Defense

Shubhangi Deoras

Shubhangi Deoras is assistant counsel to the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense and is a contributing editor to Criminal Justice magazine.

ABA Gideon Initiative Grantees Spark Novel Reforms

On March 18, 2003, we commemorate the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, which established the indigent defendant’s right to counsel in criminal proceedings. In honor of this landmark decision, the ABA (with funding from the Open Society Institute) has administered over the past two years an experimental indigent defense grant program known as the ABA Gideon Initiative. The program provided one-year catalyst grants for projects to formulate a multifaceted plan to foster systemic indigent defense improvements in selected states. It is unique in that it required the substantial participation of nontraditional indigent defense stakeholders in each grantee’s planning process. As the ABA Gideon Initiative nears completion, innovative grant projects in Louisiana, Michigan, and Mississippi are just beginning to leave their mark.

Louisiana: The Louisiana Indigent Defense Initiative is a collaborative grant project of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL) and the Louisiana Crisis Assistance Center (LCAC). The project is building a public and political consensus for reform of the juvenile indigent defense system to ensure young people are both adequately represented and given meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation. Toward that end, JJPL has engaged in extensive public education, outreach, and coalition building, while LCAC has focused on gathering and analyzing valuable indigent defense data to be used in JJPL’s public education efforts.

JJPL encourages both traditional and nontraditional indigent defense stakeholders to participate in the reform process. On the traditional front, JJPL has served as an educational resource for a joint legislative study commission established last year to examine Louisiana’s juvenile justice system and propose recommendations for reform. JJPL secured testimony from key witnesses regarding the state of juvenile indigent defense for public hearings that were held by the study commission throughout Louisiana. This testimony was widely distributed in a joint report with the ABA Juvenile Justice Center released in July 2002, entitled "The Children Left Behind: 2002 Annual Update." Further, JJPL has reached out to the defense bar by providing training to public defenders on juvenile delinquency practices and submitting articles for various state bar and defender association publications.

In an effort to secure the input of nontraditional stakeholders, JJPL organized a Youth Advocacy Task Force that included the participation of church groups, parent advocates, judges, service providers, mental health advocates, business groups, detention center administrators, and professors. The task force developed a set of recommendations on reforming the juvenile indigent defense system and presented them to the joint legislative study commission in August 2002. The main recommendations include: (1) holding juvenile defenders, prosecutors, probation/parole officers, and the courts accountable to mandatory standards of practice; (2) establishing an independent, centralized, statewide office of juvenile defense to provide the necessary resources, training, supervision, support, and professional recognition for quality advocacy and representation; and (3) developing and funding effective, high-quality, client-driven treatment and rehabilitative services as alternatives to incarceration. The Youth Advocacy Task Force is also in the process of developing a set of "best practices" standards for juvenile indigent defense representation.

LCAC is assisting JJPL in the Louisiana Indigent Defense Initiative by conducting studies on indigent defense funding and resources (for both adults and juveniles) in sample Louisiana parishes (including Calcasieu Parish, East Baton Rouge Parish, and a third rural parish). The results of these studies will be used in JJPL’s public education efforts to demonstrate the need for an increase in the state’s funding appropriations for both adult and juvenile indigent defense. According to LCAC, the idea is to prevent the state from responding to calls for juvenile indigent defense reform by attempting to shuffle funds that have been allocated for adult indigent defense services to the juvenile part of the system, as has occurred in the past.

Michigan: Improving Public Defense Services in Michigan is a project of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency (MCCD) to organize a Michigan Public Defense Task Force (composed primarily of members from nondefense partner organizations) to develop a "model plan" and implementation strategy for improved statewide public defense. The task force began its mission by adopting 11 "guiding principles," comprised of the ABA Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System plus an eleventh principle that states: "When there is a defender office, one function of the office will be to explore and advocate for programs that improve the system and reduce recidivism." Subsequently, the task force has worked closely with the Michigan State Bar and played an instrumental role in the state bar’s adoption of these eleven principles in April 2002.

To inform its planning process, the Michigan task force organized public hearings in various counties around the state to discuss the issue of how public defense services in Michigan should be improved. Additionally, it developed and launched a website ( to publicize these hearings and other task force efforts. The website offers information on the task force mission, meeting agendas and minutes, information on the public hearings, and information on how to assist in the planning process.

Lastly, the task force developed and distributed surveys (through the mail and the website) to circuit court administrators and public defense attorneys to gather data on public defense system structures, funding, attorney selection, attorney payment, quality of representation, and support services.

In November 2002, the task force published its Model Plan for Public Defense Services in Michigan, which includes the following main recommendations: (1) the state legislature should establish a Commission for Public Defense Services (with broad representation) to develop and implement standards and administer systems for public defense services; (2) standards established by the Commission should address the issues contained within the task force’s "Eleven Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System"; and (3) local public defense boards should be organized within each circuit court jurisdiction (or combination thereof) and responsible for developing, implementing, and monitoring local systems in compliance with the commission standards. Currently, the task force is working with the Michigan State Bar and others on an implementation strategy for the Model Plan for Public Defense Services in Michigan.

Mississippi: The Mississippi Gideon Enforcement Project of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) aims to secure state funding for the entirely county-funded indigent defense systems in Mississippi by: (1) providing support for ongoing systemic litigation; (2) conducting necessary research; and (3) educating the public on the need for improved indigent defense representation for adults and juveniles.

On the litigation front, LDF is providing assistance to the law firm of Arnold & Porter and local attorney Robert McDuff, who represent Quitman and Noxubee counties in lawsuits against the State of Mississippi for failure to fund indigent defense services. Additionally, LDF has undertaken a novel economic study of 11 sample county-funded indigent defense systems in Mississippi. The goal of this study will be to demonstrate the need for a statewide, state-funded indigent defense system by identifying (1) indirect costs to the state resulting from the inefficiencies of the current county-funded systems and (2) social costs to the state resulting from the current county-funded systems (e.g., lost wages or child support payments due to prolonged pretrial incarceration.)

For its public education campaign, LDF is working closely with the community-organizing group known as Southern Echo, Inc. To date, Southern Echo and LDF have facilitated community meetings in six counties to improve the public’s understanding of the systemic shortfalls of Mississippi’s county-funded indigent defense systems and their impacts on the state’s residents, especially families and children. These community meetings were well attended by parents, teachers, former inmates, family members of prisoners, police officials, mayors, county supervisors, youth court social workers, church leaders, and activists.

LDF and Southern Echo intend to hold a second round of community meetings early in 2003 to discuss proposed recommendations for statewide indigent defense reform. In addition, LDF and Southern Echo plan to convene a statewide Gideon Conference next year to bring together and further mobilize the many groups they have reached through their local community meetings.

ABA Gideon Initiative grantees have succeeded in energizing community organizations and other nondefense attorney groups to join the fight to improve public defense services in several states. As a result, emerging reform efforts in Louisiana, Michigan, and Louisiana have a real chance at sustaining long-term success. For more information about these promising efforts, contact Shubhangi Deoras, SCLAID Assistant Committee Counsel, at (312) 988–5765 or at

Return to Table of Contents - Fall 2002

Return to Criminal Justice magazine home page