Sixty years ago this week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous landmark ruling intended to create a more equitable criminal justice system. In California, we are still waiting for the change that was promised.
On March 18, 1963, the justices decided in Gideon v. Wainwright that defendants in felony cases have the constitutional right to a free attorney if they can’t afford to hire one.
If you were too poor to pay a lawyer, it stood to reason that you could not meaningfully exercise your Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial.
That is what happened to Clarence Earl Gideon, who was was accused of stealing bottles of beer and soda and about $5 in vending machine change from a pool hall in Panama City, Fla. The judge refused to appoint him an attorney. So Gideon, who was indigent, had to represent himself at trial. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
While incarcerated, Gideon sent a handwritten appeal to the Supreme Court, arguing that the judge had violated his right to a fair trial. His conviction was overturned, and he was given a new trial. This time he had a court-appointed lawyer and was acquitted.
Six decades after Gideon won his fight, millions of people, a disproportionate number of them Black and Brown, struggle to get the legal services they are entitled to. For them, the right to counsel is little more than empty words and unfulfilled promises.
An estimated 80% of people arrested must rely on a public defender. It is the state’s responsibility to ensure that those eligible get competent legal counsel. California, however, has shifted that obligation to counties. And until recently, the state provided no dedicated funding for local public defenders. Meanwhile, spending for district attorneys to prosecute and incarcerate has ballooned.
According to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, district attorneys receive nearly $1 billion more in funding than public defenders. Prosecutors have another advantage. They’re able to tap into a vast law enforcement network of investigative resources that public defenders cannot.
Day in and day out, dedicated and overworked public defenders grapple with staggering caseloads. Their duties are ever-expanding. Changes in the law require public defenders to provide immigration-related advice, assist clients in re-sentencing, and help clients access mental health and drug rehabilitative treatment. While these changes are necessary and welcome, they often come without additional resources.
In 2015, the ACLU filed a civil rights lawsuit against California and Fresno County because the city wasn’t meeting basic standards for providing legal representation to indigent defendants.
Under a 2020 settlement agreement, Gov. Gavin Newsom agreed to designate $10 million for a grant program for indigent defense. It was the first time the state had provided money specifically for local public defender programs.
That paved the way for a subsequent three-year pilot program to help people get relief under recently passed post-conviction reforms. But now, the final $50 million installment for the pilot program could be cut from the 2023-24 budget.
It is unfathomable that the state of California would consider cutting critical funds being used to help repair the devastation caused by decades of misguided and inhumane sentencing laws.
It’s time for California to start providing meaningful funding for indigent defense. That means more than just providing an attorney but also providing the attorney with the resources to properly do their job.
The Sixth Amendment right to counsel was designed to protect everyone. But if the majority of White people in this country were surveilled, prosecuted and incarcerated in the same manner as Black, Brown and poor people and had to rely on public defenders, funding for public defense would look drastically different, and the long overdue promise of Gideon would be fulfilled.
Brendon Woods is the Alameda County public defender. Yoel Haile is director of the criminal justice program at the ACLU of Northern California.
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