“Reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person hauled into court who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth.”

So wrote Justice Hugo Black in 1963. The case was Gideon v. Wainwright, and the unanimous decision by the Supreme Court ushered in a new era of justice in which the poor could be fairly represented in court. Over the years, however, it appears Gideon’s trumpet has hit a bad note – in this current economic crisis, the implementation (or lack thereof) of the decision crosses the line between justice and injustice.

In the wake of the Gideon decision, states were required to create and maintain public defender systems, so as to ensure fair representation in court for indigent defendants.

Today, however, it is generally accepted that public defenders are overworked and underpaid. In many U.S. cities, they have recently experienced vast increases in their workloads: In Miami alone, a felony public defender is assigned, on average, 500 cases each year – up from 367 in the last three years. Meanwhile, the burden on a public defender representing clients on misdemeanor charges has risen from 1,380 cases a year to over 2,200.

To put this in perspective, a public defender will work on about four cases each day, including weekends. That’s enough time to work on one case about every three and a half hours, and many of these cases carry significant ramifications for the accused. Does this sound like justice?

Public defenders work themselves nearly to death, and they don’t get paid much for doing it. The average annual salary for a public defender fresh out of law school is $44,421. Compare that with the typical prosecutor, who averages a salary of $62,000 per year. We have a system in which smarter and more successful attorneys are more likely to pursue prosecutorial work than work as public defenders.

While trying to ensure equal justice is a noble pursuit, it doesn’t pay the bills of brand-new lawyers, many of whom have significant debt from college and law school to pay off. At the very least, we should equalize salaries for public defenders and prosecutors, so that each side is stocked with the same level of talent.

Consider the following scenario: The state provides an indigent defendant with a public defender who is so busy he can hardly remember his client’s name. They are battling a multi-million-dollar law firm with dozens of attorneys on its payroll – a team of investigators with a virtually unlimited amount of time to find evidence and secure a conviction.

On the surface, this appears to be the epitome of injustice; but it’s also a fair depiction of our adversarial system. One can look to indigent conviction rates for further affirmation. The Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs reported that about 90 percent of federal indigent defendants and 75 percent of state and county defendants with publicly financed counsel were convicted. This figure is well above the average U.S. conviction rate, which ranges from 65 to 80 percent, depending on the crime. It’s a discrepancy worth noting.

On the other hand, when indigent criminals are convicted it appears judges become sympathetic. The Office of Justice Programs estimates that state judges sentence indigent criminals to about two and a half years of prison on average, while those represented by private counsel were sentenced to about three years apiece. Judges seem to prejudice their sentencing based on the nature of the convict’s representation. It’s a quasi-judicial “affirmative action” that only further perverts the pursuit of justice.

The current economic recession has made matters worse. In cities, defenders are experiencing a significant increase in caseload while the government is forced to cut funding for many of these sorts of programs. It’s twice the work with half the money, and many public defender organizations are fighting back. Several state public defender organizations have filed motions in court to halt all incoming cases until more funds are received.

We are flying in the face of Gideon, the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution and human compassion, all just to save a few bucks.

“Bailout” has been something of a buzzword of late – federal bailouts have been considered for car companies and investment banks. Why not give the justice system a bailout? Our justice system deserves aid more than anything else, for it is something that we are constitutionally required to maintain. We must adhere to this lofty standard and ensure that we are providing justice for everyone, regardless of their standing and the trying economic times we face.

Tim Swenson is a junior in the College, a cadet in Army ROTC and a GUSA senator. He can be reached at swensonthehoya.com. Closing Arguments appears every other Tuesday.

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