Justice Department Advocates for Improvements in Indigent Defense


The United States Department of Justice in August filed an historic statement in a Washington case that underscores the department’s commitment to improving the quality of indigent defense across the country.

The statement of interest was filed in a lawsuit against Burlington and Mount Vernon, Washington, where just two part-time lawyers were handling 2000 misdemeanor cases. The suit alleges that the extreme workload of public defenders in those cities systematically deprived defendants of their Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

The Justice Department did not take a position on whether the cities violated the Constitution, but urged the judge, if he finds a violation of the right to counsel, to appoint an independent monitor for public defender workloads. “We are absolutely committed to the principle that every indigent person who is accused of a crime is entitled to his or her constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel,” says Jocelyn Samuels, who leads the department’s civil rights unit.

Attorney General Eric Holder has focused on counsel for the poor through programs like the Department’s Access to Justice Initiative as well as the Civil Rights Division. In remarks to the American Bar Association last month, he emphasized that “America’s indigent defense systems continue to exist in a state of crisis” and called on Congress to “not only end the forced budget cuts that have decimated public defenders nationwide – they must expand existing indigent defense programs, provide access to counsel for more juvenile defendants, and increase funding for federal public defender offices.”

The failure of state and federal criminal justice systems to provide adequate counsel to indigent defendants is one reason why “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason,” as the attorney general told the ABA.
“[W]idespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable. It imposes a significant economic burden — totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone — and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”

Mr. Holder announced that he was ordering federal prosecutors not to list drug quantities in indictments for low-level drug cases in order to sidestep mandatory minimum sentencing laws and help ease overcrowding in federal prisons.