[Vision2020] The Nation's Public Defender Crisis: Idaho Makes Progress on Standards and Funding

Nicholas Gier ngier006 at gmail.com
Fri Apr 1 12:13:55 PDT 2016


For those who do not take the Daily News below is my biweekly column. It
also appeared in the Sandpoint Reader and the Los Cabos Daily News.  It may
appear soon in the Idaho State Journal in Pocatello.

I'm grateful to our very own Sunil Ramalingam who led me to the best
contacts for this column.

Happy Spring (there are goslings in the new UI Arboretum!),


*The Nation’s Public Defender Crisis*

            For almost a century the American Civil Liberties Union has
been in the forefront in protecting the people’s constitutional rights. For
this column I will focus on the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees full due
process to criminal defendants and their right to legal counsel.

            In the 1963 case *Gideon vs. Wainwright* Supreme Court rendered
a unanimous decision clarifying the right to counsel.  Justice Hugo Black
wrote that “reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our
adversary system of criminal justice, any person hauled into court, who is
too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is
provided for him.”

            The ACLU has filed suits in Connecticut, Michigan, New York,
Washington, Idaho, California, and most recently in Louisiana, arguing that
these states have failed to provide adequate counsel for their indigent

On June 17, 2015, in its first action against an entire state, the ACLU
sued Idaho because its public defenders are “under resourced, overburdened,
and often overworked.” In addition to citing the lack of enough
investigators and expert witnesses, the ACLU suit also states that “our
plaintiffs have had to go before a judge for bail hearings, and even to
enter pleas of guilty and be sentenced, without a lawyer present.” Many of
them sit in jail because they cannot afford bail.

In July 2015 the ACLU filed yet another suit against Fresno County, where
an under staffed public defender office serves 25,000 clients. According to
an ACLU news release, plaintiff Peter Yepez “did not see a public defender
until he had spent almost a month in jail. He had nine different public
defenders between his arraignment and sentencing, some of whom told him
they did not have time to work on his case and advised him to plead guilty
despite strong evidence that he was innocent.”

On January 14 of this year the ACLU sued the City of New Orleans for severe
deficiencies it its Public Defenders Office, one financed primarily by the
fines that many of its poor clients have to pay.  Because of the crisis, 60
defendants sit in jail without legal representation, and the state-wide
waiting list has grown to 2,300. In Louisiana and California a great
majority of these defendants are people of color.

There used to be ten public defenders in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana,
but Natasha
George is now the only one. District Court Judge Jerome Winsberg despairs:
“Things were not good before, but they are in a terrible place now.” The
average public defender caseload used to be twice that of national
standards, but it is now threefold.

Returning now to Idaho, the Legislature passed two bills this session.  One
will hold the counties to higher standards for indigent legal
representation, and it will allow the Public Defense Commission to take
over the programs of any county that doesn’t meet them.

The second bill allocates $5.4 million for the Commission, which heretofore
had no funding at all. It provides $4.3 million for grants to counties that
meet the new standards. The balance of the funds will go to extraordinary
litigation, and there is $550,000 to encourage small counties to merge
their services.

The bills have had the support of the Association of Criminal Defense
Lawyers, and the ACLU’s Kathy Griesmyer announced that her organization was
grateful for the new funding. However, she added: “We will be back here
advocating for additional dollars as well as reminding folks that this is
an incremental step in addressing deficiencies in the public defense

Ian Thomson, former Executive Director of the Public Defense Commission, is
less sanguine: “I would be encouraged if this were a first step towards
meeting the challenge of our public defense problems, but I fear that this
may be the last step.”

Nick Gier of Moscow taught philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31


A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they
shall never sit in.

-Greek proverb

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity.
Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance
from another. This immaturity is self- imposed when its cause lies not in
lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without
guidance from another. Sapere Aude! ‘Have courage to use your own
understand-ing!—that is the motto of enlightenment.

--Immanuel Kant
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