This Aug. 6, 1963, file photo shows Clarence Earl Gideon, 52, the mechanic who changed the course of legal history, after his release from a Panama City, Florida, jail. (AP Photo, File)
March 18 marked the fiftieth anniversary of one of the Supreme Court’s most celebrated decisions, Gideon v. Wainwright, in which the Court unanimously declared that poor people accused of crimes are entitled to lawyers and that every person “stands equal before the law.” But resistance to—and outright defiance of—this landmark ruling endures. Fairness and equality are in short supply in the criminal courts, which have incarcerated 2.3 million people, a grossly disproportionate number of them people of color. Because a major consequence of poverty is often inadequate representation, racial discrimination in the system as a whole—from stops by police, to disparities in charging, to the exclusion of blacks and Latinos from juries, to the severity of sentences—often goes unchallenged and even unremarked upon.
On the same day they decided Gideon, the Supreme Court justices handed down a ruling in Douglas v. California, which quoted an earlier ruling by the Court: “There can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has.” But in most places this is precisely the case, and it is obvious from the moment someone is arrested. Those who can afford lawyers hire them at once to help them get out of jail and start working on their defense. But many poor people languish in jail for weeks or months without lawyers.
Jacqueline Winbrone was jailed after being arrested in New York because she could not make her $5,000 bail. With no lawyer to seek a reduction, she remained behind bars and was unable to take her husband to his dialysis treatments. As a result, he died. Winbrone’s charge was later dismissed.
In many cases, poor people who are arrested spend more time in jail waiting for a lawyer and a hearing than they would spend if found guilty and sentenced. Many, including the innocent, plead guilty simply to get out of jail. As the Supreme Court has observed, the criminal courts are “a system of pleas, not a system of trials.” Guilty pleas account for 94 percent of convictions in state courts and 97 percent of convictions in federal courts. In many state courts, poor people plead guilty and are sentenced without lawyers. Others have lawyers who are burdened with so many cases they have only a few minutes to spend with them, and so they plead guilty after brief conversations—hardly legal representation. It is not uncommon for defendants who plead guilty to have little or no understanding of the consequences of their pleas, such as deportation, denial of business or professional licenses, exclusion from public housing and other benefits, and loss of the right to vote.
There are exceptions, of course. The public defender and assigned counsel program in federal courts provide very good representation, but 95 percent of criminal prosecutions take place in state courts. Some jurisdictions have defense programs through which capable and dedicated lawyers provide high-quality representation from the initial bail hearing through resolution of the case. But many more have not established or funded a comprehensive system for providing representation. Some states have delegated the responsibility for public defense to their counties, which means the quality of a defense attorney can depend on where the case is tried. In California, for example, some counties have outstanding public defender offices, while others contract with lawyers or law firms to provide representation. Such contracts are often awarded to the lowest bidder, creating an incentive for lawyers to handle a high volume of cases and spend as little time as possible on each one in order to make a profit. One contract lawyer revealed that 70 percent of his clients entered a guilty plea at their first hearing after he spent just thirty seconds explaining the prosecutor’s plea offer to them.