Justice for All, Just Not the Poor

“The fundamental right to a lawyer that Americans assume apply to everyone accused of a criminal conduct effectively does not exist in practice for countless people across the United States.” So states an American Bar Association report that continues on to find that wrongfully convicted individuals have collectively served 1, 800 years of prison time. Yes, EIGHTEEN centuries of wrongfully served time. And since the analysis was only done with data from 31 states and the District of Columbia, this is likely a lowball figure. So when the Department of Justice reports that “about three-fourths of the inmates in State prisons and about half of those in Federal prisons received publicly-provided legal counsel for the offense for which they were serving time,” one must wonder how many more years of freedom have been stolen from innocents.

In an overly complex criminal justice system, people are getting lost every step of the way. And though “it has been more than 40 years since the Supreme Court ruled the government must provide legal counsel to indigent defendants,” the callous words of Atlanta Judge Hulane George sum up the current state of affairs, “You have a right to a lawyer — not the lawyer of your choice.”

So how is the President, whose own state of Texas isn’t exactly a bastion of justice, addressing the issue? Well, in his 2005 State of the Union, President Bush declared the “need to make sure Americans of all races and backgrounds have confidence in the system that provides justice.” (Understandably, more than a few people were surprised by this reversal of course.) And in the particular instance of capital cases President Bush pledged to “send to Congress a proposal to fund special training for defense counsel in capital cases.” The problem is that President Bush pretty much already made this promise, touted it as the Justice for All Act, and then underfunded the initiative.

When “almost all people on Death Row could not afford to hire an attorney,” it is a slap to the face of justice to underfund an initiative that would have helped to provide proper legal counsel to indigents. Will these latest findings from the ABA force the president to realize that if he doesn’t pay for his promises, thousands of people pay with their lives?