Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of the most important cases in our country’s history, Gideon v. Wainwright. On March 18, 1963, the United States held that anyone accused of a felony had the right to be represented by a lawyer, even if they couldn't pay for it. This allowed for the creation of our nation’s indigent defense system that consists of public defenders, court appointed attorneys and other pro bono criminal defense representation.
Only 50 years ago, you could have been charged with a crime and if you could not afford to hire an attorney, you would be forced to defend yourself. This lead to many innocent people, who were ignorant of their constitutional rights, being convicted of crimes they were unable to defend against. Today we are all familiar with the common police drama line of “if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.” That line exists because of Gideon.
Although the decision in Gideon provided attorneys to indigent clients, it far from perfected the system. Today public defenders are overworked and over extended. It’s not unusual for a lawyer who works as a public defender to have an open case load of 150-200 cases. Often times indigent defendants slip through the system without the benefit of proper representation. Public defenders continue to be the hardest working attorneys in the criminal justice system, but without proper funding and attention, indigent clients continue to be left behind.
AB 49 has been introduced in the Nevada legislature this session and seeks to fund indigent defense in certain counties. Indigent defense is the law, how it is paid for is left to the states. This bill seeks to solve a funding issue, but the funding mechanism is through additional sales taxes. Sales taxes are the most regressive tax possible because everyone pays them regardless of income. In other words, a larger share of lower income household income will be spent on sales taxes. This would mean people who cannot afford an attorney and qualify for the indigent defense right are paying more of their income to realize that right. We oppose this funding mechanism.
Today, we should celebrate the accomplishment of Clarence Earl Gideon when he simply asked the court to honor his right to be represented by an attorney. However, our work is far from over. Indigent defense and the criminal justice system in our country need a drastic overhaul. We need to keep the rights of all citizens in the forefront of our minds and our passion as we work towards creating a more just society. When one citizen who is charged with a crime falls through the cracks of a broken system, it is a failure on us all.
Let us continue the work of Gideon and strive for a more just criminal defense system. The ACLU of Nevada works tirelessly on issues such as these and we continue to hope for further success in the future.