Our Fundamental Right To Representation?
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Politics and Activism

Our Fundamental Right To Representation?

In his book “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” Bryan Stevenson aptly states, “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”

Our Fundamental Right To Representation?

In 1963, the United States Supreme Court in the case Gideon v. Wainwright embraced this ideal by making it a constitutional right for indigent people to have a court appointed attorney in any criminal proceeding. In a unanimous opinion, Justice Black eloquently stated, “the ‘noble ideal’ of ‘fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law… cannot be realized if the poor man charged with a crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him.’” Although this landmark case ensured the right to representation for all, 53 years later, even with the heroic efforts of public defenders across this country, limited resources for indigent defense continue to undermine the lofty ambitions asserted in Gideon.

Take for example Sylvia, a public defender that I described in my previous article, “The Pens.” She explained to me that there was tremendous inequity in funding between the District Attorney’s (DA’s) office that represent the people and institutions that represent the poor. Although both sides have enormous case loads, public defender offices are historically under financed. She pointed out that there are times when her office “struggles to get enough funding to give out pay checks on time while the District Attorney’s office is given new iPhones and are not worried about getting paid on time.” Moreover, she said on weekends, there are two DA’s at arraignments switching off and on while she is alone defending those who she has had a only a brief a moment to ask questions about the circumstances of their case.

Nevertheless, every morning she drives an hour in bumper-to-bumper traffic to her office that provides indigent defense for thousands of people a year. If she is on the arraignment shift, she walks down to the pens on her own and has about an hour to interview all her clients, which on average is 60 people, giving her about one minute per person. Conversely, prosecutors have far greater resources to prepare. Not only do they have more personnel, they have a complaint room where they have time to review the charges and other documents to make the case in the courtroom against a defendant. On the other hand, Sylvia walks up to that stand with little more than the answers to the few questions she has had time to ask the defendant while in the pens. She is handed a file by the court officer and in a few short minutes is expected to read the contents which include the charges and other relevant information about the case, while she simultaneously advises her client and answers questions from both the judge and the DA. Despite the pressures of the courtroom, Sylvia puts up the best possible defense as she tirelessly chips away at her never-ending caseload.

However, despite all the flaws in our justice system, Sylvia told me she loves her job. Surely, she does not do this work for the accolades, and she certainly does not do it for the money. She is a public defender because she has an unwavering belief in the ideals set forth in Gideon, that everyone accused is a unique individual and deserves the highest level of legal representation no matter his or her race, religion, or economic standing.

We must never forget that people like Sylvia exist, and everyday they fight for those who have little against the injustices of the justice system. It is Sylvia and those like her that are the true measure of how we should treat the poor.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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