March 9th, 2016 by Attorney Dan Carman
In the U.S., everyone accused of a crime is supposed to receive equal justice under the law without regard to whether they can pay for it. The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution establishes the right to counsel in federal criminal prosecution, which has been extended by case law to all criminal prosecutions, state or federal, felony or misdemeanor, that carry a sentence of imprisonment. Congress passed the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) in 1964, recognizing the government’s obligation to fulfill the Sixth Amendment by providing for the payment of hourly fees and expenses for court-appointed lawyers.
Each jurisdiction has a way of providing legal representation to defendants who cannot afford to hire a private attorney. The basic methods are a public defender office, assigned counsel programs, or a contract system. Frequently, these three models are combined in order to be able to provide unconflicted representation.
The Task Force on Federal Indigent Defense of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) released a troubling report late last year about the federal government’s system for indigent defense. A nearly two-year study unearthed serious concerns that the role being played by judges is directly affecting the independence of the defense. Judges are supposed to be neutral arbiters. Instead, they are exercising control over the process in many ways, such as selecting the defense lawyers for indigent clients and then approving or rejecting the defense lawyers’ fee requests. The report found many instances of judges’ cutting fees without explanation and without appeal, leaving defense lawyers with fewer resources to pay experts and investigators, and on unequal footing with prosecutors. In fact, the United States spends less on public defense as a percentage per capita than every single European nation.
Although the Task Force did not offer clear solutions, it did identify a few key points that would enable a stronger, better-balanced federal indigent defense system:
- Control over federal indigent defense services must be insulated from judicial interference.
- The federal indigent defense system must be adequately funded.
- Indigent defense counsel must have the requisite expertise to provide representation consistent with the best practices in the legal profession.
- Training for indigent defense counsel must be comprehensive, ongoing, and readily available.
- Decisions regarding vouchers must be made promptly by an entity outside of judicial control.
- The federal indigent defense system must include greater transparency.
- A comprehensive, independent review of the CJA program must address the serious concerns discussed in the report.
If you have any questions about this topic or about your criminal defense rights, you can find out more by discussing it with one of the attorneys at the Lexington, KY-based Carman Law Firm. As criminal defense lawyers with years of experience, we offer thorough, experienced representation. Call today at (859) 685-1055 or fill out this online contact form to find out how we can help you.