Clarence Gideon was convicted of burglarizing a Florida bar and sentenced to five years in prison based solely on the testimony of one questionable eyewitness. But Gideon’s side didn’t adequately challenge that eyewitness at trial. You see, Gideon handled his own defense. When he requested a public defender be appointed to him, the judge said that the state only had an obligation to do that in cases eligible for the death penalty.
Gideon disagreed and penciled his plea to the U.S. Supreme Court. On March 18, 1963, the Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that the poor defendant was right. He and other indigent defendants are entitled to public defenders in criminal prosecutions under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In a new trial, with an attorney at his side, Gideon prevailed.
But 50 years later, the promise of Gideon remains unfulfilled. In courtrooms across the country, including Montana, poor defendants relying on public defenders find their attorneys overworked, underpaid and without the resources to hire the investigators and experts they need for trial. Simply put, Montana is not investing enough resources in the Office of the Public Defender. And a few more dollars here and there for attorney salaries may stanch the worst bleeding, but it won’t fix the problem. An infusion of $10 million is needed for the office to hire the attorneys it needs and provide the resources they need to fulfill the state’s constitutional mandate.
Brandon Stanfield wrote the ACLU of Montana from Flathead County. He and 20 other prisoners in the Flathead County Jail said that they have not been given speedy trials in large part because of the excessive
caseloads given public defenders.
In fact, statewide Montana Public Defender caseloads routinely exceed the 125 threshold recommended by the American Bar Association. Turnover is high because public defenders are paid far less than other attorneys working for the state. When an opening comes up in another department, many jump. It doesn’t help that public defenders aren’t given the resources they need to try their cases. Expert witnesses and investigators (think law enforcement) and support staff are far easier for prosecutors to come by.
To be sure, these problems affect Montana’s entire criminal justice system. When an overburdened public defender has not had a chance to meet with her client or to work on a case, hearings are postponed — often at the last minute — wasting the time of prosecutors, judges, law enforcement and witnesses, costing us all money. Delays cause these same defendants to spend more time in jail, overcrowding facilities and costing counties more money. These same problems delay justice for victims. No one wins when cases are slow to be resolved.
Most of all, we can’t forget why we have public defenders. As the Supreme Court ruled in Clarence Gideon’s case 50 years ago, every person has a right to a fair trial with an attorney able to defend his rights. If adequate counsel is not provided to poor defendants, individual liberty goes from being a right to being a commodity available to only those who can afford it.
We can’t let that continue in Montana.
Scott Crichton is the executive director of the ACLU of Montana.