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Why You're in Deep Trouble If You Can't Afford a Lawyer


Fifty years after the groundbreaking "Gideon" ruling, public defenders are overworked, underpaid—and America's poor are paying the price.

Why You're in Deep Trouble If You Can't Afford a Lawyer

By Hannah Levintova, Jaeah Lee, and Brett Brownell
Mother Jones
May. 6, 2013

In January 1962, a man sitting in a Florida prison cell scrawled a note to the United States Supreme Court. He'd been charged with breaking into a pool hall, stealing some Cokes, beer, and change, and was handed a five-year sentence after he represented himself because he couldn't pay for a lawyer. Clarence Earl Gideon's penciled message eventually led to the high court's historic 1963 Gideon v. Wainwright ruling, reaffirming the right to a criminal defense and requiring states to provide a defense attorney to those who can't afford one.

Fifty years after the ruling, many legal advocates contend that the justice system is still failing the poor. Last week, the Supreme Court disappointed reformers when it refused to rule on a case involving a Louisiana man serving a life sentence after waiting five years in jail while the state came up with money to pay his court-appointed lawyer. (The federal system for defending the poor is relatively well resourced, though it's also struggling with budget cuts. Several of the attorneys defending Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev face up to three weeks of sequester-mandated furloughs later this year.)

Just how bad is the state of public defense in America? The charts below detail some of the biggest challenges plaguing the system.

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