By David Rangaviz
In re Kimmick, 2013 VT 43
Today’s case is about the scope of the right to counsel.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Gideon v. Wainwright, in which the Court decided that indigent criminal defendants have a right to counsel in state courts when they are unable to afford their own attorney. This anniversary provides a moment for reflection.
Today, the public defender system in this country is broken. For many defendants, the “right” rings hollow, legitimating an era of mass incarceration in which public defenders are spread increasingly thin by exploding caseloads and shrinking budgets. At the federal level, the sequestration’s recent budget cuts have greatly exacerbated the problem, triggering mass layoffs in federal defenders’ offices across the country. And every dollar cut from public defender budgets offers only illusory savings—it requires the use of more private attorneys, who cost more and get worse outcomes. The likely result, higher sentences, just shifts the problem onto the ballooning corrections budget. The cuts are penny wise and pound foolish.
(If you have HBO and 90 minutes to spare, watch this documentary.)