This is the first in a series of articles investigating the failed promise of Gideon v. Wainwright. It was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute, with support from The Puffin Foundation.
On April 18, 2011, New Orleans police arrested Clarence Jones, a 41-year-old black man. Clarence contends that he was walking with his cousin Keitha Hyde, running some errands around 11:30 am, when he ducked into an alley to relieve himself. “It was just an empty house, so I went in the backyard out of sight,” he says, talking to me via phone from jail—and when cops turned the corner, he looked guilty. But police contend that Clarence was climbing out a window with pliers in his left hand, apparently scrapping for metal or copper wiring in the gutted building. The cops arrested him and his cousin and took them to the Orleans Parish Prison. On May 13, nearly a month later, Clarence finally appeared before a magistrate in Orleans Parish Criminal Court, who arraigned him on the charge—simple burglary—and set his bail at $10,000 (before raising it four days later to $20,000).
More than sixteen months later, Clarence Jones is still in jail waiting for an attorney to be assigned to represent him. “It’s been hell back here,” he says, explaining that he is living, along with approximately 400 other prisoners, in oversized tents that fill the prison grounds. In the aftermath of Katrina, which flooded huge swaths of the massive Orleans Parish Prison seven years ago, circus-style tents were erected to “temporarily” house the inmates. Today, the tents are still housing prisoners on a patch of barren ground in the middle of the city.
Even worse, the Orleans Parish Prison—already notoriously violent—veered out of control as Jones languished there. Things got so bad that the US Marshals Service pulled its prisoners from the facility in March 2012. Then the Justice Department sent a letter to the New Orleans sheriff in April citing “alarming conditions” in the “violent and dangerous” prison. The detailed list of constitutional violations runs twenty-one pages. Clarence Jones puts it simply: “It’s like we animals. They’re just packing more and more people in. They got us packed to capacity. Lots of us have no attorney. Can’t do nothing but sit back here. We’re just stuck.”
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As an impoverished, incarcerated defendant in a criminal case, Clarence has a guaranteed right to free legal counsel. But in Louisiana, such rights are routinely flouted. Indeed, Clarence is one of 230 people sitting in limbo in the Orleans Parish Prison this summer after a $2 million budget shortfall forced the Orleans Parish public defender’s office to lay off twenty-seven employees, twenty-one of them lawyers. Hundreds more defendants are out on bond, trying to make sense of the court documents being sent to them and wondering whether they’ll ever be assigned a lawyer to help. As the post-Katrina federal dollars dry up and the fiscal crisis forces drastic budget cuts at the state and local levels, one of the areas hardest hit in New Orleans—and in the nation at large—has been public defender offices. When money gets tight, the lawyers charged with protecting the rights of the poor in criminal cases are considered expendable.
Whether public defenders are funded by the state, county, city or some combination thereof, governments across the country are sacrificing lawyers for the poor and putting the constitutionally guaranteed right to counsel at risk. US Attorney General Eric Holder decried the indigent defense “crisis” facing the nation when he spoke to the American Bar Association in February, asserting that programs across the country were “underfunded and understaffed.” Citing “insufficient resources, overwhelming caseloads, and inadequate oversight,” he worried about a breakdown: “Far too many public defender systems lack the basic tools they need to function properly.”