Friday, August 13, 2010

"...if you can not afford an attorney, one will be provided for you"

The right to remain silent and the right to an attorney are guaranteed to all citizens in the 5th and 6th amendments of the constitution. In 1963, Ernesto Miranda was arrested and interrogated, and during that interrogation he confessed to the commission of a crime. Upon review, the Supreme Court ruled that in order for his statements to be admissible, he had to be aware of his rights under the 5th and 6th amendments, and he had to make a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary waiver of those rights. His first conviction was thrown out, and since then the "Miranda Warning" has an integral part of our system of our criminal justice system.

But despite its ubiquity, buried within the Miranda warning is a concept that we mistakenly take for granted: That we are all guaranteed a right to counsel. That guarantee is rooted in our Adversarial system of jurisprudence which presupposes that in any criminal proceeding, both the plaintiff and the defendant should be afforded equal access to the courts and each allowed to present their most vigorous and spirited argument. It is through this process of reasoned argument between two equal platforms that we aspire to arrive at the truth.

That is the noble system we've drafted, but is that the system we have?

The reality is that in counties all across the nation, Public Defenders offices find themselves dramatically under-staffed and under-funded compared to their colleagues in local District Attorney's offices and private firms. This is not a bureaucratic or budgetary problem. These disparities challenge the integrity of our criminal justice system. Chronic under-funding contributes to high turnover rates, which result in Public Defenders offices disproportionately relying upon recent college graduates who lack real world trial experience. Chronic under-staffing results in Public Defenders being forced to manage impossible caseloads, significantly limiting the amount of time attorneys can spend reviewing any given case or preparing effective defenses. The cumulative outcome of these structural inequities is that poor and largely minority defendants, who are constitutionally guaranteed a right of equal participation and access to our adversarial system, too often enter courtrooms with inadequate, inexperienced, and or under-prepared counsel.

Right here, in the fair city of Wichita, attorneys in our Public Defenders office are each managing an average of almost 250 cases per year. And with nearly 4,800 annual cases, they are staffed with only ONE investigator! That is more than a travesty, that is a rolling civil rights violation designed into the very structure of the system; a system in drastic need of reform. The Kansas State Conference of the NAACP will be lobbying for changes to the system in the upcoming legislative session. We'll post details on this initiative here on the blog.

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