Gideon Turns 60: Improving Public Defense Across America
Sixty years ago, the Supreme Court held that Clarence Earl Gideon, a man accused of a felony, had the right to an attorney despite not being able to afford one. Since then, the constitutional right to counsel has continued to expand—to those facing incarceration for any criminal offense, to children facing delinquency charges, and to all critical stages of representation. As part of our research into whether, across the country, we are meeting Gideon's lofty promise, the Wren Collective examined the provision of indigent defense in five counties. In each of these counties, Wren collected stakeholder input on needed improvements and developed recommendations for how these systems can be improved. Those findings are below.
Cuyahoga County, OH
In "Gideon at Sixty: Advancing the Right to Counsel for Kids in Cuyahoga County," Wren investigated juvenile defense in Cuyahoga County, Ohio.
Wren recommends that the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court appoint the public defender to represent all children facing delinquency charges, and that the public defender, rather than the court, determine when assigned counsel is needed. Wren also recommends that the county increase the training and oversight of its private attorneys and establish new assignment systems that are independent of the judiciary.
Harris County, TX
In "Death by Design" Parts 1 and 2, Wren investigated the state of court-appointed capital representation in Harris County—the death penalty capital of the world.
The first report delves into the failings of the lawyers in capital cases. The second report examines why that poor representation has thrived, and the ways that the judges overseeing those cases have enabled it to continue that way.
Wren recommends a total overhaul to the system of capital representation for poor defendants in Harris County, with either the public defender absorbing those cases or the judges establishing a new, freestanding capital public defender that is independent from judicial oversight.
Schuylkill County, PA
In "Under-resourced And Ignored: Indigent Defense in Schuylkill County," Wren investigated indigent defense in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.
The report found major deficiencies, which are likely replicated across rural Pennsylvania and rural America. The report calls for Schuylkill County to provide funding to its public defender office so that it can meet its constitutional obligations. Wren further recommends that the General Assembly conduct a robust study of the gaps in rural defense in the state, so it can take steps to assist counties in filling those identified gaps and allocate far more funding than the $7.5 million already provided for indigent defense across the state.
Gwinnett County, GA
In "Restoring and Rebuilding: Indigent Defense in Gwinnett County," Wren investigated indigent defense in Gwinnett County, Georgia.
The report found that lawyers have excessive caseloads that prevent them from providing effective representation. Wren recommends that the county establish a central Indigent Defense Office that will assist the county with attorney recruitment and retention, ongoing county-sponsored training programs, access to adequate support staff, and appropriate funding to protect the rights of the criminally accused. That central office should also be responsible for monitoring attorney caseloads and performance.
Nueces County, TX