Embodying Gideon

Brush off your high school government textbooks: who here remembers Clarence Earl Gideon?

I’ll leave it to the Washington Courts web site to explain it:

In 1961, a penniless man was hauled into a Florida court, charged with breaking into a pool hall, and convicted without ever speaking to an attorney other than the prosecutor. From prison, Clarence Earl Gideon hand-wrote a letter to the U.S. Supreme Court saying he did not have a fair trial because he had had no attorney to help him, and asked the Court to throw out his conviction. In 1963, the Supreme Court handed down the landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright that all citizens are entitled to legal counsel when charged with a felony, and the states must provide counsel to those who cannot afford it.

As we’ve talked about on the Crime and Justice Forum before, the state of Washington is changing the way its 39 counties fund public defense, through grants.

Though traditionally, individual counties fund their own justice systems, Kitsap has a pot of almost half-million dollars from the state for the purposes of “enhancing” public defense. If you’ve read this far, you already know why the state decided to step in (if not, click the link above).

The state’s goal, in the 45th anniversary of the Gideon decision, is to provide sound indigent defense for every Washingtonian that qualifies for it by the 50th anniversary.

Held today (Friday), the state’s office of public defense held a “symposium” in Olympia looking at the Gideon decision and public defense in Washington. Included were justice big wigs such as Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander, Attorney General Rob McKenna, Office of Public Defense Director Joanne Moore, Washington State Bar Association President Stan Bastian, Seattle University Defender Initiative Director Bob Boruchowitz, and Committee on Public Defense co-chair Jon Ostlund.

For those further interested, here’s more from the state court’s web site. And you can watch the symposium here.

“The harsh reality is that, in courts across Washington and the nation, thousands of people plead guilty without ever talking to any lawyer except the prosecutor. This is most dramatic in misdemeanor and juvenile courts,” said Bob Boruchowitz, a member of the Washington State Bar Association’s Committee on Public Defense, in a report for the King County Bar Bulletin. “This happens both because there is no public defender available at the first court appearance and because of a culture that regards misdemeanor and juvenile cases as not important enough to invest the money and time necessary to have lawyers to help accused people.”

The Public Defense Status Report comes as Washington is in the midst of a dynamic reform movement regarding court funding and the funding of public defense in the state. State legislators in 2005 and 2006 approved new funding for defense services for counties that work to meet public defense standards. It was the first time state funding was allocated toward public defense services — county and city governments have always paid for all public defense services, causing sometimes serious inconsistencies in quality and availability of services.

Continuing these efforts is crucial toward fulfilling the promise of Gideon and fair trials for all citizens. The state, counties and cities file more than 230,000 criminal charges and serious legal actions against impoverished Washington citizens each year. Serious problems still exist in the defense system designed to help those citizens, including excessively high caseloads and low compensation for contracted public defense attorneys, and inadequate oversight in the delivery of trial-level public defense services. In the coming year, OPD will work with legislators to address failures to provide attorneys for all juveniles at their initial court appearances, among other gaps in the public defense system.

“The crisis in public defense is gravely harming thousands of people every year in Washington,” said Joanne Moore, director of the state Office of Public Defense. “Much progress has been made, thanks to our partners in the Legislature. We are thankful to be on the right road toward honoring Gideon and the Constitution, but we have further to go.”

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