03.18.13

On Anniversary Of Historic SCOTUS Decision, Leahy Introduces Gideon’s Promise Act

WASHINGTON – On the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, which established the right to a lawyer for all criminal defendants, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced legislation that would ensure fairness in the criminal justice system for all participants.

The Gideon’s Promise Act of 2013 takes important new steps to help realize the fundamental right to counsel articulated in Gideon. The legislation authored by Leahy, a former prosecutor, encourages states to direct existing Federal funds received through the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program toward improving the overall administration of justice, including the provision of indigent defense services. The bill also requires the Department of Justice to assist states that want support in developing an effective and efficient system of indigent defense, and it establishes a cause of action for the federal government to step in when states are systematically failing to provide constitutionally required representation.

“In the last fifty years, we have come a long way in ensuring equal justice for all Americans and there is much about our criminal justice system in which to take pride. But we must also be honest and recognize that in too many courtrooms it is better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent,” Leahy said.  “The rich will have competent counsel, but those who have little often find their lives placed in the hands of underpaid court-appointed lawyers who are inexperienced, overworked, inept, uninterested, or worse.”

Despite improvements since the Supreme Court’s landmark decision, Leahy noted that “too many States still lack adequate programs for providing effective representation.” The legislation introduced today seeks to bridge that gap.  “We are on notice,” he said, “that a constitutional right is consistently being violated and, if we are to call ourselves a country of laws, it is our obligation as a nation, and particularly as the Congress, to take action and make a change.” This legislation was originally a part of the broader Justice For All Reauthorization Act Senator Leahy introduced last Congress, which would have reauthorized a wide range of programs originally enacted in 2004 intended to improve the quality of justice in the criminal justice system. Because of the important Gideon anniversary this year, Leahy decided to introduce this piece on its own and vowed to reintroduce the Justice For All Act reauthorization later this year.

“I remain committed to ensuring that our criminal justice system operates as effectively and fairly as possible. Unfortunately, we are not there yet,” Leahy said.  “Americans need and deserve a criminal justice system that keeps us safe, ensures fairness and accuracy, and fulfills the promise of our Constitution for all people.  This bill will take important steps to bring us closer to that goal and I urge all Senators to support this legislation.”

A copy of the legislation can be found online.

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Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.),
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee,
On the Fiftieth Anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright and the Introduction of the “Gideon’s Promise Act of 2013”
March 18, 2013

Fifty years ago today, the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright. That case affirmed a fundamental principle of our democratic society, that no person, regardless of economic status, should face prosecution without the assistance of a lawyer. It is worth pausing today to celebrate Gideon and the extraordinary idea that in a free society the government which seeks to convict someone must also assume the cost of providing an effective defense. 

In the last fifty years, we have come a long way in ensuring equal justice for all Americans and there is much about our criminal justice system in which to take pride. But we must also be honest and recognize that in too many courtrooms it is better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent. The rich will have competent counsel, but those who have little often find their lives placed in the hands of underpaid court-appointed lawyers who are inexperienced, overworked, inept, uninterested, or worse.

The bottom line is that the promise made in Gideon remains unfulfilled. At the core of this problem is the fact that too many States still lack adequate programs for providing effective representation. That failure results in miscarriages of justice, including wrongful convictions, in violation of our constitutional obligation to provide effective assistance of counsel.  In his column yesterday in the New York Times, Lincoln Caplan noted, “by well-informed estimates, at least 80 percent of state criminal defendants cannot afford to pay for lawyers and have to depend on court-appointed counsel.” A recent article on the front page of USA Today correctly calls the problem a “national crisis,” highlighting one public defender’s office in Pennsylvania that has four investigators to handle its 4,000 cases a year and where some lawyers have no desk or phone. A similar AP article which ran in the Washington Post cites additional examples of this ongoing failure of our criminal justice system, including one public defender in Indianapolis who was asked to represent 300 clients at a time. I know what it takes to work a case effectively from my time as a prosecutor, and no lawyer can provide effective counsel to 300 defendants at once. I ask unanimous consent that copies of these articles be placed in the record.

We can no longer ignore the disturbing examples discussed in these articles.  We are on notice that a constitutional right is consistently being violated and, if we are to call ourselves a country of laws, it is our obligation as a nation, and particularly as the Congress, to take action and make a change. That is why today, I am introducing the Gideon’s Promise Act of 2013.  This legislation takes important new steps to breathe life into Gideon and ensure the fairness of our criminal justice system for all participants.

I first introduced this legislation last Congress, as part of the reauthorization of the Justice For All Act. That law, passed in 2004, was an unprecedented bipartisan piece of criminal justice legislation.  It was the most significant step Congress had taken in many years to improve the quality of justice in this country and to improve public confidence in the integrity of the American justice system. I plan to reintroduce the reauthorization of the Justice for All Act, again, later this spring and it will include this critical provision to ensure that our criminal justice system operates  effectively and consistent with our constitutional obligations.

The Gideon’s Promise Act takes several important new steps to improve the quality of the criminal justice system. First, it seeks to encourage States to adopt a comprehensive approach in using the Federal funds received through the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program.  This will help to ensure that their criminal justice systems operate effectively as a whole and that all parts of the system work together and receive the resources they need.   Specifically, the bill reinstates a previous requirement of the Byrne JAG Program that States develop, and update annually, a strategic plan detailing how grants received under the program will be used to improve the administration of the criminal justice system.  The requirement was removed from the Byrne JAG grant application several years ago, but groups representing States and victims have requested that it be reinstated in order to improve the efficient and effective use of criminal justice resources.   The plan must be formulated in consultation with local governments and all segments of the criminal justice system.  The Attorney General will also be required to provide technical assistance to help States formulate their strategic plans.

This legislation also takes important new steps to ensure that all criminal defendants, including those who cannot afford a lawyer, receive constitutionally adequate representation.  It requires the Department of Justice to assist States that want help developing an effective and efficient system of indigent defense, and it establishes a cause of action for the Federal Government to step in when States are systematically failing to provide the representation called for in the Constitution.

This is a reasonable measure that gives the States assistance and time needed to make necessary changes and seeks to provide an incentive for States to do so.  As a former prosecutor, I have great faith in the men and women of law enforcement, and I know that the vast majority of the time our criminal justice system does work fairly and effectively.  I also know that the system only works as it should when each side is well represented by competent and well-trained counsel. That realization was reflected in the testimony of District Attorney Patricia Lykos of Houston that competent defense attorneys are critical to a prosecutor’s job. Our system requires good lawyers on both sides.  Incompetent counsel can result not only in needless and time-consuming appeals but, far more importantly, can lead to wrongful convictions and overall distrust in the criminal process.

In working on this legislation, I have also learned that the most effective systems of indigent defense are not always the most expensive.  In some cases, making the necessary changes may also save States money.

I remain committed to ensuring that our criminal justice system operates as effectively and fairly as possible. Unfortunately, we are not there yet. Too often the quality of justice a defendant receives in our system depends on how much he or she can pay for an attorney.  The Constitution requires that we do better.   Americans need and deserve a criminal justice system that keeps us safe, ensures fairness and accuracy, and fulfills the promise of our Constitution for all people.  This bill will take important steps to bring us closer to that goal and I urge all Senators to support this legislation.

I ask unanimous consent that a copy of the bill be printed in the Record.

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