By Maria Pia Matos
LOS ANGELES, CA – A Los Angeles Times editorial reminded readers this week that last Saturday marked the 60th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, a landmark Supreme Court decision that guaranteed criminal defendants’ right to counsel even if they could not afford one.
Noted the Times, it became “commonly understood that the government is required to provide defense lawyers to the indigent. ‘If you cannot afford an attorney,’ police officers tell suspects upon arrest, ‘one will be provided for you.’ Judges tell defendants the same thing when they first appear in court.”
A half-century before the Gideon ruling, the Los Angeles County public defender office already offered legal representation to indigent defendants, added the Times as it pointed out California is no longer “the pacesetter..”
Following the decision, when the majority of state governments started handling defense counsel themselves, California continued to delegate the responsibility to its 58 distinct counties without any guidelines or regulations, said the Times.
There are, the Times added, still 12 counties without public defender’s offices, including San Luis Obispo County and smaller counties in Northern California. Instead, these counties hire individual law firms or attorneys, typically for flat fees awarded to the lowest bidder, regardless of how much time is required for adequate representation.
The Times Editorial Board opines these lowest-bid lawyers “likely encourage their clients to accept quick plea bargains. For the lawyer who can make ends meet only by carrying a huge caseload — one that allows too little time with each defendant to do an acceptable job — an early guilty plea means no precious time spent interviewing witnesses, checking evidence and alibis or assessing the strength of the prosecution’s case.
“For a defendant, even an innocent one, it may mean incarceration and being subjected to the severe consequences of having a criminal conviction, including losing housing, employment, even child custody or, for some immigrants, the right to remain in the U.S. Once the defendant pleads guilty, the right to appeal is lost.”
There is little funding for defense services and no training is provided to lawyers; the county offers no supervision; and the state provides no assistance or monitoring, said The Sixth Amendment Center.
During an economic slump a decade ago, the Board of Supervisors in Fresno County, for example, reduced public defender funds, resulting in layoffs and unconscionably large caseloads for those who remained, the Times said.
An average yearly felony caseload was 1,000, allowing each lawyer a little over two hours for each case, from initial interview to plea negotiating through trial and sentencing. Because of these failings, the ACLU sued the county and the state.
The state public defender’s office, which at the time was only conducting death sentence appeals, was ordered by a settlement in 2020 to provide technical support at the trial court level. Yet according to the Los Angeles Times, neither the state office nor the counties in California have any performance requirements, and the state office is still understaffed and underfunded.
Notes the LA Times, “The smaller counties without public defender offices muddle on, to the detriment of their poor residents, who are far more likely than others to be arrested and prosecuted. The system is a particular failure for Black and Latino residents, who likewise are disproportionately caught up in the criminal justice system.
“If the Sixth Amendment guarantee of right to counsel is to be more than a slogan and the American system of equal justice is to be more than a suggestion, California must step up,” added the Times, suggesting the state should pass laws to “measure the quality of indigent defense — whether it be by funding requirements, caseload maximums or other metrics.”
“There currently are no such legislative proposals, but there should be. Gideon vs. Wainwright offered an important promise 60 years ago. It’s time to make good on it for indigent defendants everywhere in this state,” the Times Editorial Board writes.