It’s been 50 years since Gideon v. Wainwright established the right to counsel in a landmark Supreme Court ruling, but public defenders still struggle against ever-growing case loads and budget cuts to represent their clients. Twelve million people are arrested each year; a full 80% of people in the criminal justice system are represented by public defenders, director Dawn Porter said on Monday’s Morning Joe.
Public defenders face a “staggering case load” they can’t keep up with, said Porter, the producer and director of a new documentary, Gideon’s Army which follows three young lawyers at Gideon’s Promise, a group that aims to combat those tough odds by training young defenders.
“I was blown away by them,” Porter said of the young public defenders. “Coming from poor communities, they’re going back and helping people in their communities who are facing these draconian sentences.”
Porter noted that one growing problem is the small percentage of state budgets that are dedicated to the public defender system.
In Birmingham, Alabama, federal cuts (including some from sequestration) will mean a 23% cut to the public defender’s office budget this year—a move that one defender told The Birmingham News threatens Gideon v. Wainwright’s promise in northern Alabama. Thanks to the cuts, they’ll have to lay off three or four people, including as many as two attorneys from the 15-person staff.
“The easiest thing to cut the budget for is indigent people accused of crimes,” Porter said. “If you get the combination of not having a lot of funding and having a lot of people being brought into the system, it’s really a recipe for disaster.”
But Porter still sees hope in fixing the broken system.
“I think we’re a country that believes in fairness and I think what’s happening is unfair,” said Porter. “We simply can’t afford to just lock people up.”
Gideon’s Army premieres on Monday at 9:00 p.m. on HBO.