This month marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright, which established the fundamental right to counsel in a criminal case.
Clarence Earl Gideon was charged with breaking into a Florida poolroom. He appeared in court without counsel, asking for an attorney to be appointed, because he couldn’t afford one. The trial court denied his request, noting that appointment was reserved only for those charged with a capital offense.
Gideon was tried by a jury, acting as his own attorney, was convicted of the felony offense and sentenced to five years in prison. He appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court, who ruled unanimously that the state must provide an attorney to a person too poor to hire one in a felony case. In later cases, the right to counsel was extended to any matter for which a poor person could lose his or her liberty.
In that 1963 ruling, the Supreme Court was unequivocal in its finding that assistance of counsel is an absolute necessity when liberty is at stake.
“Reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.”
The court termed the need for a lawyer as “an obvious truth,” stating, “Governments, both state and federal, quite properly spend vast sums of money to establish machinery to try defendants accused of crime. Lawyers to prosecute are everywhere deemed essential to protect the public’s interest in an orderly society. Similarly, there are few defendants charged with crime, few indeed, who fail to hire the best lawyers they can get to prepare and present their defenses.”
In all of Kentucky’s 120 counties, the Department of Public Advocacy’s public defenders provide the constitutional representation that implements our devotion to protecting individual liberty against abuse.
In addition to protecting the freedoms of the accused, public defense is central to our public safety. The constitutional choice is clear. The state either must see that an indigent defendant is provided counsel or the state cannot proceed with a prosecution. Prosecution, public defense, courts, and law enforcement all serve vital roles ensuring the justice system has reliable, valid results.
Our adversary system does not produce fair results on its own. It takes professional judges, prosecutors, properly resourced public defenders and criminal defense lawyers. There is a real benefit to people from the representation by counsel. Each day in every county in our Commonwealth, public defenders help kids, the mentally ill, and those who may be innocent or overcharged. These are people who need help navigating a system foreign to them that seeks to take away their liberty.
There are substantial financial benefits to communities when public defense systems are properly funded. Public defenders who are competent, who have manageable workloads, and who have professional independence insure that the rights guaranteed by our Constitution are protected and insure that no one’s liberty is taken unless proven guilty.
The value of public defenders is significant in other real ways. Public defenders lower costly incarceration rates for counties and states by timely advocating for pretrial release for those presumed innocent and alternate or reduced sentences for those convicted. When staffed adequately, public defenders increase the efficient operation of the criminal justice system and prevent overcharging and expensive wrongful convictions.
Costs for county jails increase when those arrested spend more time incarcerated prior to trial than necessary for public safety.
The Gideon mandate of counsel for the poor is a reality in Kentucky, and our office here in Richmond provides services for Madison, Clark and Jackson Counties. The 50th anniversary of this watershed case reminds us of the continued importance of “justice for all.”
Valetta Browne is directing attorney of the Department of Public Advocacy’s Richmond trial office.