An indigent-defense project at Seattle University School of Law and the Sixth Amendment Center in Boston will share a $450,000 grant from the Department of Justice (DOJ) to work on solutions to failings in the public-defense system nationwide.
The two-year grant is part of Attorney General Eric Holder’s focus on addressing systemic problems in local and state-run public-defense systems.
Holder, in a series of speeches and editorials, has said those systems “exist in a state of crisis” 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously declared it an “obvious truth” that the criminally accused, no matter what their circumstances, have the right to an attorney and effective legal counsel.
The grant was awarded by the DOJ’s program called “Answering Gideon’s Call,” overseen by its Civil Rights Division, and is aimed at improving state-level public-defense to a minimum suggested by the American Bar Association.
Bob Boruchowitz, the director of the Defender Initiative at Seattle University School of Law, said “Hundreds of thousands of people each year plead guilty without ever talking to a lawyer.”
David Carroll, the executive director of the Sixth Amendment Center, said an effective defense system can, in the long run, cut down on unnecessary appeals and the number of people incarcerated.
With a presence on either coast — Seattle and Boston — the directors say the program is “uniquely situated to respond quickly to struggling jurisdictions to provide timely technical assistance” to address issues that stand between defendants and their right to be represented by an attorney, whether they can afford one or not.
They point out that seven states — Utah, Mississippi, Arizona, California, Idaho, Pennsylvania and South Dakota — currently devote no money for non-capital, trial-level defense services. Those responsibilities have been relegated to local jurisidictions, which often don’t have the resources to fund indigent defense.
The grant comes as many eyes in the U.S. legal and law-enforcement communities are focused on a pending decision in a civil-rights lawsuit over the misdemeanor indigent-defense systems in Mount Vernon and Burlington. A federal judge is weighing whether to find those systems in violation of the Constitution and review an unprecedented request by the DOJ to consider placing those locally run defense systems under federal oversight.