The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution affords each citizen the right to due process of the law, and the right to adequate counsel. If this is a right, why are the poor subjected to unfair treatment in judicial proceedings in the form of either inadequate or inappropriate counsel?
There was a cartoon showing a lawyer facing his client, who asked: “You’ve got a pretty good case, how much justice can you afford?” (Bright, 2010, p. 684). This confirms that the equal justice and protection clause seems to be more of a dream, than a reality for the poor. A poor person convicted of a crime cannot afford any injustice, and so the onus is on society to bear the price for justice this person needs. Often the price comes in the form of a right to counsel that is a protected provision within the Constitution for every citizen
The American justice system is retributive an adversarial. For this reason it is extremely important for the poor to be represented by efficient counsel, who has access to resources such as experts and investigators. Life and liberty are high price items that states can afford to hire, and provide quality counsel to the poor. Most states are not willing to provide this quality of legal representation to the poor who has been convicted of a crime. This results in a system that is illegitimate, and incredible; where the poor fall prey to unreliable results, and inaccurate administration of justice (Bright, 2010).
Often poor individuals who are convicted of a crime is defended by counsel who typically lacks the skills, resources, experience, and time commitment need to provide high quality defense for their clients. This concern is the same whether the case is adjudicated for serious or lesser offenses; as evidenced in various landmark cases through the years. The concern is not about the nature of the crime, but the quality of legal defense provided to the defendant that make indigent representation such an issue (Bright, 1994).
A decision in the Supreme Court’s decision in Powell v. Alabama mandates that any person who cannot afford his own private counsel, is entitled a court-appointed defense. It is evident that the change needed will occur, but with more than the Court’s acknowledgement. There needs to be more emphasis put on the competency of the defense counsel. The importance of quality counsel, thorough investigation, and preparation was illustrated in the Gideon v. Wainwright case. Evident in the criminal justice arena is that in order to get high quality legal representation, the defendant has to have money (Bright, 1994). In the 1942 case, Betts v. Brady, Mr. Betts was charged with a felony, and requested an attorney. His request was denied by the judge because his crime was not a capital offense (Mosher, 20103).
It is a daunting to task for each person to have access to counsel regardless of financial means, with the expectation that the attorney will provide quality representation, and work tirelessly to achieve justice for the poor. The fact is that this is a constitutional right based on a judicial rather than personal opinion. Many decades after these landmark cases, there is still evidence of the poor being appointed in adequate representation in the court of law?
Pervasive Nature of Inadequate Counsel for the Poor
Inadequate counsel is very prevalent in most criminal cases with poor defendants. This is particularly pervasive, and troubling in capital offense cases. The American Bar Association concluded the greatest miscarriage of justice for the poor is evident in jurisdictions that administer death sentences. “ Justice Thurgood Marshall observed that “capital defendants frequently suffer the consequences of having trial counsel who are ill equipped to handle capital cases” (Bright, 2010, p. 695).
The Lack of Indigent Defense Programs
Most states can afford to provide high quality defense for all who need it. The issue is that often the defense attorneys appointed by the judge often has no interest in the case, criminal law, might be doing pro bono hours but works in private practice, and who simply do not want cases including indigents convicted of crimes. Many receive little or no compensation, or do not possess the skills required to properly represent their clients (Ivers, 2002). Most defense attorneys see cases involving the poor, as those no one wants, and so they do not invest time into these types of cases.
Even though everyone has right to counsel, however, the government is the one trying these poor in the court of law so why would they bother to invest in the very people whose life, and liberty it is trying to take away? In these cases where defendants are poorly defended, the prosecution is certain of a conviction against the defendant (Bright, 2010).
Determining ineffective counsel
The formulated standard of ineffective counsel was defined by the Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washington. The formula as used by Justice O’Connor was based on a two-pronged evaluation. The Justice suggested that a defendant can deem his appointed attorney to be ineffective if he can prove that the representation received fell below what would be considered “an objective standard of reasonableness. She further stated that the defendant must be able to prove that the representation he received resulted in a prejudiced and unfavorable verdict against the defendant (Gabriel, 1986).
The Supreme Court used provisions in the Sixth Amendment in the Strickland v. Washington case to define “a fair trial” (Ivers, 2002). Regardless of this provision, the poor is still appointed in effective legal representation. The poor has no money so they can neither afford high quality representation nor injustice. Regardless, lack of appropriate counsel results in an unfair trial. Constitutional law dictates that when ineffective counsel prejudices poor defendants, they have a right to a new trial (Gabriel, 1986).
- Bright, S. B. (1994). Counsel for the Poor: The Death Sentence Not for the Worst Crime but for
The Worst Lawyer. Yale Law Journal, (103), 1835, p.1-51. Retrieved from http://library.law.yale.edu/sites/default/files/103yalelj.pdf
- Bright, S. B. (2010). Legal Representation for the Poor: Can Society Afford This Much Injustice.
2010 Missouri Law Review Symposium (75), 684-714. Retrieved from http://library.law.yale.edu
- Ivers, G. (2002). American Constitutional Law: Power and Politics. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company
- Gabriel, R. L (1986). The Strickland Standard for Claims of Ineffective Assistance of Counsel:
Emasculating the Sixth Amendment in the Guise of Due Process. University of Pennsylvania Law Review (134), p. 1259-1289. Retrieved http://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/